Bill Courtney is the host of the “An Army of Normal Folks” podcast. He rose to prominence after the release of the film Undefeated, an Academy Award-winning documentary covering the Manassas High School football team in Memphis, Tennesee. An entrepreneur, Courtney is the author of Against the Grain: A Coach’s Wisdom on Character, Faith, Family, and Love. He recently spoke with Ray Nothstine.
The first thing I noticed when I signed on to your podcast is the army helmet with “We the People.” That plays into a lot of the work we’re doing with American Habits. What does “We the People” mean to you?
Bill Courtney: There are neighborhoods in every city—Memphis, where I’m from—and every other big city—St. Louis, Baltimore, Chicago, New York, LA, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver, pick one—where when you’re driving down the street, you see the neighborhoods that are wrought with poverty and despair. As you drive and pass that neighborhood, you think “Good Lord, this is not where I want my car to break down. This is not where I want a flat tire.”
As you pass by you think to yourself, “What’s wrong with our society? Somebody ought to do something about that down there one day,” and you think or say that as if the sentiment matters. It doesn’t. The sentiment means nothing. I think we need to kick that rearview mirror about 15 degrees to the left and look ourselves in the eyes and say, “Maybe I ought to do something about what I am seeing.”
My thought process is we continue to watch fancy people on FOX and CNN using big words that nobody really uses—that haven’t changed anything—and are incentivized by a lot of money and power to continue to divide us through competing narratives. Then you look at the dysfunction in Washington and this massive federal government that, through decades of programs and billions of dollars, is woefully inadequate. Political tribes on social media are not helping. I genuinely believe it’s going to take an army of normal folks.
“We the people,” us normal people, you and me, seeing a place of need in our little corner of the world and employing whatever discipline and talents and experience that we have where our passions are and do what we can to fix our corner of the world. Government is not the answer. I know it’s not a powerful media class. None of those things are ever going to fix what’s ailing this country.
If we had literally an army—I know it almost sounds hokey, but if we had hundreds of thousands of people serving just five or 10 people in their corner of the world in a way that they can harness some discipline that they’re passionate about, we literally could change the country. This country started with “We the People.” It’s still about that. We need to quit being led like sheep to these corners that divide us and get back to an army of normal folks, seeing places in need, and filling them where we have the ability and the passion to do so.
Let me get your insight here. I jump on social media enough. Some of it’s for work. Some of it’s just for fun. You see people who are just sucked into arguing about politics all day. It’s not accomplishing anything. What can you say to some of those people? They’ve become addicted to it. I think there’s this hunger for unity, but there are people who want to sabotage that, too.
Courtney: My grandfather was based in Pensacola, Florida, during World War II. He was a pilot, training aviators. When I was in my 20s, I remember something that came up. It was divisive. I said something like a young, impetuous idiot who didn’t know what he was talking about. It’s exactly what you are talking about, but pre-social media. He looked right at me, and he said, “Let me tell you something. I may disagree with you, but I will defend with my life your right to say it.” I think that should be a defining core principle.
We’ve got to get away from this fear of cancel culture and reducing people to ideology.
Whether or not we have that saying, I believe that was a defining principle for centuries in America. In the last two or three decades, that has morphed into, “If you don’t look like me, vote like me, think like me, or worship like me, you must be my enemy.” We’ve got to get away from this fear of cancel culture and reducing people to ideology. We’ve got to be able to get to a place where we can talk again, where we can talk about faith and religion and politics and do it in a civil, non-threatening way.
Unfortunately, our leadership has done a poor job of illustrating what that’s supposed to look like. As a result, like sheep, we follow right down that same path and it has infiltrated our culture and society. We used to have those conversations face-to-face.
Now many just sit in a basement behind a computer screen. The humanity is removed. They’re just words on a screen and people attack each other. It’s destructive. We need to start thinking about how to better use that energy. It starts with first being civil and non-threatening and having a true desire to understand different perspectives.
Whether you agree with it or not, you need to listen because you can’t have a real conversation with somebody about hard stuff when you don’t even understand their perspective because you’re too busy talking and yelling and arguing and assuming that if you look, vote, or worship differently than me, you’re my enemy and the fight is on. It doesn’t have to be that way.
I do want to transition real quick right before we jump into the podcast and just ask you a little bit about Undefeated. It influenced me, particularly in terms of basic volunteerism. It’s hard work. I think that’s something you talked about before is getting off the couch and walking across the street to get involved.
Tell me a little bit about what propelled you to do this documentary, to be a part of this, and how it has shaped some of the work you’re doing now. I remember watching it and listening to a little bit of the Chavis interview that you’ve done on the podcast, and some of those kids have died. They’ve been shot. Chavis is somebody you wouldn’t think of as a success story.
Tell me a little bit about this documentary because there are likely people out there that are unfamiliar with it.
Courtney: First, I didn’t do the documentary. I had nothing to do with it. Real quick, my dad left home when I was four. My mom has been divorced five times. My fourth daddy shot at me down a hallway. I grew up with amidst a lot of trauma and dysfunction. The good people in my life were coaches. The coaches counterbalanced all the ridiculousness I grew up with.
When I graduated from Ole Miss, I wanted to coach football. I got married and had kids and started my business. In the state of Tennessee, you can be a certified non-faculty football coach if you go take all those classes and get the credentials. I jumped at it. I coached football for 31 years while growing my business, not as a dad on the sideline but as a certified coach.
The film Undefeated covered the seventh year that I was at Manassas. When we got to Manassas, we had 17 kids and they’d won four games in 10 years. That last year, we had 75 kids. We were one of the better football teams in the state. Frankly, I’m running my lumber business, raising my four kids, trying to be a good husband to Lisa. These two 29-year-old skinny-legged dudes wearing skinny jeans with scarves show up from Hollywood.
They leave Memphis with 550 hours of film. I mean this with everything I am. We thought we might see this thing on Channel 246. We didn’t do anything. We were just subjects. Then they made a movie we thought nobody would ever see.
Two years later, I’m walking down the red carpet at the Academy Awards. It’s crazy. The answer to your question is the movie didn’t change any perspectives for me, but my seven years at Manassas did.
I found a renewed sense of excitement for the human spirit because you’ve got kids that come from the fourth-worst ZIP code in the country that are three times more likely to be dead or incarcerated by their 21st birthday than they are to have a job. Seventeen of the last 18 seniors on our football team went to college. I watch kids get out of gangs and start thinking about a life for themselves. I watch a kid like Chavis, who spent 15 months in jail as a freshman and sophomore in high school, end up being a leader and now, as an adult, a leader in his community.
The outcome . . . of your life should in no way be determined by the ZIP code at the time of your birth. Unfortunately, in too many places in our country, that reality exists. I know we can change that, not by relying on government but on an army of normal people. I want to be very careful here—that does not just mean a bunch of white people going to help poor black people. It’s important we understand normal folks are representative of the entire country.
I think our podcast does a good job of exploring that. It’s important that I don’t want to come off talking paternalistically about the things we need to do. I want to make sure we have a holistic view of what this army looks like that is serving those that are less fortunate.
Undefeated is not about wins and losses on the football field. It’s about not being defeated by your circumstances. I watched a lot of kids with a lot of difficult circumstances not be defeated by them and do amazing things, who now as adults are doing great things. It plays right into the conversation and narrative that we’re having with the podcast.
Tell me about this highly successful podcast, “An Army of Normal Folks.” I’ve listened to the episodes with Anne Mahlum and Erin Smith all the way through. I think a successful aspect of this is the storytelling. Who are you trying to reach? I love this contrast of an army of normal folks against this army of politicians who fail us. Just go to usdebtclock.org if you have confidence in our government today. You were top 10 on Apple at one point. I want people to know about what you’re hoping to accomplish.
Courtney: We’re only 11 weeks old. We just launched. We have been as high as number 10 in the country on Apple. I think we oscillate between that and top 100, so it is getting traffic. I’m humbled by that. Alex Cortes with Iron Light Labs in Chicago is the producer. We’re distributed by iHeart. Much like Undefeated, I was just minding my own business coaching football and these guys showed up.
I wrote a book called Against the Grain after the film. I do speeches all over the country. I still do interviews. Alex from Iron Light Labs interviewed me. I said to him what I said to you . . . about driving by these neighborhoods. We really need to think about “We the people,” an army of normal folks that can fix the country. He called me back about seven months after that and he said, “Hey, man, I can’t quit thinking about what you said in the interview.”
I thought I cussed or something and I was going to apologize. I didn’t remember what I said. He asked me, “Do you really feel that way?” I replied, “I absolutely feel that way.” He said, “Well, we want to start a podcast. We will find normal people from all over the country that nobody knows about doing extraordinary things. You interview them and tell their stories.”
In doing so, we’ll grow listenership and hopefully inspire people to use their talents to do the same things in their corners of the world. More importantly, maybe it becomes a movement. We can literally grow through this listenership, an army of normal folk who, if they listen long enough, start to act themselves.
Symphony orchestra music is beautiful. I love how they can get all those instruments and the vocalists to come together. I can’t play an instrument. I can’t hold a tune. I think it would be wonderful for people to reach out and teach less-advantaged folks who are interested in classical music how to play instruments, and how to sing classical music. I’ll never do it, but I know a little bit about football, so that’s where my skill set and my passion intersected as an opportunity for me to help. There’s opportunity and passion all over the place. The podcast is revealing the different talents and opportunities individuals have. And they are doing it because they are passionate about it and not because they are tapped by the government or part of some NGO.
One of the things I love about it, is people like Anne Mahlum have their own problems. She talks about her struggle with bulimia while she’s inspired to change lives, so that’s one of the things because, look, I’ve got ministry experience. I’ve done a few good things in life, but I’m messed up, too. I’m sinful. I’ve got health problems and other burdens.
Courtney: You mean you’re normal. We all have money problems, health issues, problems with kids and spouses. There’s always that person in our family at Christmas that drives us nuts. We’re normal people. We struggle. We don’t do things because we’re perfect. We do them despite that.
Yes, and that’s what I love about the podcast is they really are normal people. You’re not putting superstars on a platform. You’re not putting celebrities up there that showed up for a flash bulb. To me, that’s inspirational. You deal with the flaws these volunteers have and aren’t afraid to go there.
You deal with this human aspect that is so central to the success of the podcast or why it may ultimately be successful because you can listen to it and say, “I can do that,” instead of just saying, “Oh, well, that’s great that someone did that or somebody rich has a lot of money to give.”
If you show somebody who’s struggling, who has illnesses, who has a disease or has some kind of imperfection in their life, it humanizes the story in a very powerful way that resonates.
Courtney: It should make it relatable. Anne was a 26-year-old girl that thought she was going to grow up and have 2.1 kids and a white picket fence. Her father lost all her family’s money because he had a gambling addiction. As a result of all the insecurities that created, she had bulimia. Her only therapy was running. She ran by a homeless shelter. The homeless shelter guys yelled, “All you do all day is run.” She yelled back, “All you do all day is sit on your butt on the porch.” The next day, she goes back and decides to start a running club for the homeless, which is ludicrous.
Only a 26-year-old kid who hasn’t been completely jaded does that. Seven years later, this organization is in 13 cities and 7,000 former homeless people now are self-sufficient because of the discipline a running club instills. They now have homes and jobs without one dollar of government money.
I think it’s amazing that the success rate is almost half (46 percent). That was mentioned in the episode, which is incredibly high when you’re dealing with the homeless population.
Courtney: Yes, by simply saying, “I’m passionate about running. I got problems, but you know what? Those homeless people up there remind me of people in my family. I bet running would help them.” Every story we feature is like that.
I interviewed Mike Rowe not long ago. Rowe has a popular show on Discovery called “Dirty Jobs.” All he does is go into the dirtiest jobs and reveals the people that are doing those jobs. He engages and does the work alongside them.
He said something interesting to me, which was that his success came when he realized that the normal people in the world are the rock stars. He just interviewed normal people doing dirty jobs and made them the star of the show. He stepped back and he allowed them to shine. That’s the point of “An Army of Normal Folks.” We’ve got rock stars all over our country that you never hear about because they’re not salacious and they’re not political.
Fox and CNN and the national media are not going to tell you about them. We’re getting jaded and divided by that national narrative that comes out of DC and New York. Meanwhile, there are tons of amazing things going on in our country and tons of opportunities for each of us to do more. Our goal is to tell those stories and inspire other people to do more and have a counterpunch to the national narrative that if you don’t look like me, think like me, dress like me, or worship like me, you must be my enemy.
We should have in our framework today that we love our country because we love the people in our communities, whether it be church, family, and civil society. That’s maybe a big word that the cable news guys use. How do we think locally with all the national noise today?
Courtney: I think two things. We must have the discipline to unplug. I published an op-ed not too long ago. I’m going to get the numbers a little wrong, but it’s close enough and from Pew Research. For the first time in the history of our country there is a less than 50-percent approval rating of the US Supreme Court, about a 20-percent approval rating of Congress, and a lower than 40-percent approval rating of the White House. We don’t trust or approve of much of our government.
At the same time, 75 percent of the respondents said that they know that any national media that comes out is always tainted to one political sphere or the other. They also say that 80 percent of everything they read on social media is probably untrustworthy. The same respondents said that they spend an average of two and a half, almost three hours a day either engaging with national news or controversies on social media. The irony is we don’t believe or trust anything we’re hearing from these outlets, yet we inundate ourselves with the content that they disseminate.
How insane is that? That’s why I say we’re acting like sheep. We’re acting like we got a hook in our nose. Unplug from it some.
I’m not saying don’t watch NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt if you want a taste, but quit inundating yourself with content that you don’t believe in. It is like, “I know that stuff is poison, but I’m going to drink it anyway.” Jim Jones-like, almost.
What are you doing? Unplug from that and start looking in your own sphere because you can’t fix what’s going on in New York and DC, but you can sure fix what’s going on down the street with someone that’s not as fortunate as you.
You have those talents. Ignore the vitriolic noise and take control of our community and our culture. If we had an army of people doing that in every little town, city, municipality of this country, the noise from DC and New York doesn’t really matter. We the people are then controlling the narrative and changing the country. You know they are mostly BS, so let it go.
Then the second thing is just put your head on a swivel. Think about what your talents are and what you’re passionate about. When you see an area of need, go to work to fill it. Here’s another thing that’s interesting about “An Army of Normal Folks.” Every single guest leaves their personal contact information. That’s a prerequisite.
If you’re listening to “An Army of Normal Folks” and you hear a story about something you want to get involved in, not only does that podcast give you an illustration and a blueprint for what these people have done, but you can reach out to the very people who’ve done it. They will assist you on your quest to help.
Undefeated got a lot of publicity, which pushed me to answer a lot of questions. The one I always struggled with was, “I’m so inspired by what you’re saying and what you’ve done. I want to do something in my community. How do I do it?” That’s a hard question because I get people’s inhibitions and fears. How do I get out of my comfort zone? I have the answer now.
Listen to “An Army of Normal Folks.” Get inspired. Find a story about something that you have a discipline and a passion in. You have my contact information, the contact information of the guests, and a perfect blueprint of something you can do.
I’ve heard a lot of inspirational stories, obviously, from Undefeated and your podcast. Bill, who inspires you? Whom do you look to for inspiration and who influenced you in a positive way?
Courtney: Four people that I really think of past and present. One is a guy named Dale Flickinger. He was my math teacher. I lettered in six sports in high school, which is ridiculous.
I don’t think I was that good at any of them, but I was a triathlete. I’d try anything. He was also a statistician for the football team. I found out he was a classically trained musician. He was a center for his high school football team that didn’t lose a single game in four years and won four state championships. He was also the chess coach. I joined the chess team. This guy, after teaching every day, was in his room till 6:30 p.m.
Any kid that wanted to be taught—he would tutor them. He built a chess team with over 100 kids on it at a small school. Everybody was in his room playing chess and doing computer work and hanging out. He just gave himself to kids and never asked for anything back. He was such a servant leader.
Another person that inspired me in a big way, believe it or not, was Chucky Mullins.
Chucky was a very poor kid from Russellville, Alabama, who broke his neck on a football field when he hit Vanderbilt player Brad Gaines in 1989. I was at the game. I watched him get carted off the field. Because I was friends with then Ole Miss Coach Billy Brewer, I got a little inside baseball on Chucky. His short life he led after that injury was one of the most inspirational things I’ve ever seen. He was such a catalyst for change in Mississippi and the Southeast and racial reconciliation. Let me tell you something. If you can’t move anything—he could move his lips and his eyes; he couldn’t even move his shoulders—if you can’t move anything and can still inspire millions of people, you have no excuse if you’re able-bodied.
Real quick. You likely know this, but Billy Brewer said that Chucky Mullins showed up to Ole Miss with a small duffel bag and that was everything that he owned. Literally everything.
Courtney: Chucky’s example is so significant. Flickinger, Chucky, and then—I don’t want to get deep into this, but Christ.
I am motivated heavily by my faith. Now, I am not a put a cross on my office wall and a Bible on my desk and beat your head over it kind of guy. My faith has done a very big disservice through some of the “believe like me or you’re going to hell” types. I believe in grace. I believe in forgiveness. I believe in service. Christ is an amazing example of that.
My children inspire me every day. They are now 28, 27, 26, and 25. They live in DC, Atlanta, Dallas, and Montana. Despite a lot of the difficulties that are going on in our country, those kids are still really excited about the future and their future.
They understand the value of hard work. They put a smile on my face every day and hit the ground hard because they want to make a better life for themselves and others.