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Bill Courtney is a football coach and entrepreneur who is widely known for his role in the Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated. In this special episode, we pull back the curtain on Bill’s experience coaching football at Manassas High School in Memphis Tennessee, and reveal what “building character” truly means.
Abby: We have a special guest on the podcast today. Football coach Bill Courtney. You may know him as the subject of the Oscar-award-winning documentary Undefeated, which recounts his efforts as a volunteer football coach in Memphis, Tennessee at Manassas High School, which had not won a playoff game in over a century.
While the film itself focuses on one climactic season, we are going to pull back the curtain on how this story was even possible. Now, I’m going to turn it over to Tom and another new voice who is joining us to help introduce the conversation. This is Tom and our colleague, Rich Bollinger.
Tom: Could you just briefly tell me what you do here at JTF and also what you do in your private practice?
Rich: Sure. So I’m a clinical psychologist by training. And so what I do here at JTF is I do grant development and grant evaluation and then program monitoring for our character research and program grants. And then in my private practice, I’m a clinical psychologist. So I walk alongside people as they are seeking to make growth and to achieve some of their own goals for their own mental health and development.
Tom: Well, I think in both those roles, they’re very relevant to the conversation I have with Bill. And so I want to ask you a few questions that are related to that before I launch in that conversation with him. One of the questions I have is, have you been to Memphis before, Rich?
Rich: Only very briefly, for one weekend.
Tom: My family moved there when I was six, and we lived there for the next, or I lived there for the next 12 years. Memphis, as you look at it from the outside, seems to be two separate worlds. There’s East Memphis, which is wealthy, white, kind of aristocratic, and then you have North Memphis, South Memphis, West Memphis, a great deal of poverty, a lot of violence, poor schools.
Tom: And when you drive through, it just feels bleak, like there’s a sense of heaviness, like a cloud that hangs over the town. And that was what I observed living there in my childhood. I’m familiar with the tensions, the haves and have-nots. And so I was I wanted to ask you as a, as a clinical psychologist who works, uh, with adolescents who struggle, can you tell me a little bit about the state of mind that a person has in that environment?
Rich: My first thought is that because each person’s experience can be so different that it’s hard to necessarily say what, what the experience is. But I do think that areas of intense poverty, they have higher incidences of what we call adverse childhood experiences, right? So that’s this infamous kind of ACE score where, um, if you’ve experienced various kind of intense, adverse experiences, hence, hence, the ACE score, there is more of a likelihood that your, that your overall kind of trajectories in life will, will be, will be hindered, that they, they won’t be as successful as if you hadn’t had those experiences. And so, they end up in some ways impeding the, the capacity to, to really have the freedom to learn, the freedom to look forward, the freedom to explore, and what’s impeding tends to be on the mind of, of some of these kids.
Tom: I’m going to turn my attention now to Bill Courtney. So he also had a childhood that was very relatable to those high school students he had by any objective standards a horrible childhood in the interview as you’ll hear when when I talked to him and part of I think of his his rationale and motivation was that these are kids I can relate to, so I could see very much in his autobiography, it’s both his adult experiences, as well as his child experiences, made for a pretty good match there.
Tom: So I wonder, could somebody who wants to give in a situation like that, do it without… Basically, a childhood that is reflective of perhaps the people that they want to work with.
Rich: Do you need to be able to relate to someone to, to experience what they experience in order to effectively pour into them?
This is actually a question that comes up in the therapy room all the time, right? That, you know, clients come in and they say, you know, how can you help me if you haven’t experienced it? Experienced kind of what, if you haven’t walked in my shoes, if you haven’t kind of gone through what I’ve gone through.
And sometimes there is a little bit of that skepticism and, uh, I think, you know, the, the way that, that, that I respond in these situations is that I may, you know, that even though I may not have actually gone through, um, the exact experiences that they’ve gone through, That many of the emotions that they’ve experienced are universal emotions, right?
Those, that many of us can tap into experiences when we have felt alone, when we have felt hopeless, when we have felt deeply frightened, when we have felt just in desperate need for someone to come alongside us and help walk with us along the way. And so one doesn’t need to have the exact same experiences as long as you’re aware of your own kind of broad experience and can tap into that when you’re trying to empathize with and be patient with and care for others.
Tom: Well, it sounds like mentorship, whether it’s a parent or a coach or teacher or some other mature individual in their life, is a key variable in how people respond to adversity. So I wonder if we can kind of focus on that a little bit.
You mentioned a little bit, I guess, of what does a, what does a good mentor do? So maybe state that explicitly, of like, what does good, what are the marks of good mentorship? What should one aspire to do?
Rich: So I think, uh, I’ll, I’ll put in a little plug for one of our, our grantees if I can. So the Search Institute, which is a research and practice institute out of Minnesota, they have this framework called the Developmental Relationships Framework.
You can find it online and it’s, it’s excellent. And they have what they call their kind of their five key aspects and that is you express care, you challenge growth, you provide support, you share power, and you expand possibilities. And I think, you know, I was even listening for some of these as I was, as we were watching the documentary and I think you can see Bill doing each one of these aspects that you have to, you have to let them know that you, that you know them, that you hear them express care.
You have to help them to grow, right? You literally saw this. With the, with the muscle, right? Like, you know, in the sense that they’re, they’re growing in, in, you know, physical stature, but, but, um, that idea that you’re pushing them to grow in various ways that you provide support, you’re present. I think that the sharing power is important.
That, that you help them take ownership and agency. I mean, you heard that in his “us” language that he tends to use, and then expanding possibilities. This idea of help them to develop a vision. Right. And to then actualize on that mission.
Tom: Rich, thanks for taking time to be with me in the studio. And now we’re going to pivot to the interview with Bill Courtney.
Rich: It’s great to be here, Tom. Thank you.
Tom: Well, on the show today, we have Bill Courtney. And thanks for joining us today, Bill. I first want to tell you how much I enjoyed watching the documentary “Undefeated”, which is an account of your coaching at Manassas High School. The Oscar-award-winning documentary gives an account of a spectacularly dramatic, oftentimes gut wrenching or heart wrenching account of one year of a football season.
Yet when you start watching it… The very first game of the season you lose. So clearly it’s not…
Bill: Oh spoiler alert! Spoiler alert!
Tom: It’s not. It’s not a real spoiler because I’m not going to talk about the end of it, but it becomes very clear at the beginning. This is not about an undefeated football team, which is important. It’s instructive. So, Bill, tell me, what is it that’s undefeated about this team and about this, about the subject matter?
Bill: It’s not a football movie. It’s a human interest, coming of age story with football as a backdrop. And being undefeated has nothing to do with wins and losses on a football field. It’s about not being defeated by your circumstances.
That’s it. Don’t let your circumstances defeat you. Be a rock. Don’t be a victim. You can rise above it. That’s about you just not being defeated by who you are, the troubles you have, and where you come from. It’s not about wins and losses on football field. It’s about not being defeated by your circumstances.
Tom: As Hollywood stories often are, they don’t, as much as they can be based on true events, they don’t tell the full story. So what I want to talk to you about is the bigger story of the life lived and your experiences. So zooming out beyond the one year that’s well accounted and our listeners can watch the documentary for themselves, I want to ask you more about the six years that you spent at Manassas High School and, and what was it like on a day to day basis of working with the students there before that film crew rolled up to the scene?
Bill: It was an incredible life changing experience for me. First, you know, there’s a story under every helmet. And over the course of six years, you’re talking about, I don’t know, 200, 250 kids. And my belief is that players win games and coaches win players. I’ve never seen a coach make a tackle. I’ve never seen a coach score a touchdown.
Players do that stuff, and I think it’s a coach’s job to win the players, and the players job to win the games. And the way you win the players is you get into that story under the helmet. You, you learn your players, you understand their psyche, you understand their dreams, their fears, their goals, their inhibitions, and as a servant leader, which is what every coach needs to be, you work to quell those fears and, and help foster those dreams.
And for me, it was a life-changing experience because we’re. We were working in an area where an 18 year old male is three times more likely to be dead or in jail by his 21st birthday than he is to have a job. Adject poverty and loss, one of the five poorest zip codes in the United States. And you see sensationalized stories in movies about that demographic and what that world you think looks like.
And then when you immerse yourself in it, what you find is the human spirit’s alive and well. If you provide a level playing field, equal opportunity, in a true sense of working for something to better yourself that actually has a means to an end of a life better than what you imagined, uh, the human spirit takes over and kids are kids, doesn’t matter where they are, where they’re from or what they look like.
If you give them an opportunity and you love them up and you hold them accountable, uh, and you give them goals and you base the way you mentor and tutor them based on what they tell you about themselves that they want and don’t want and, and you, you set into action work that manifests itself in a way that creates an atmosphere of understanding and learning and effort, amazing things can happen. And if you get to learn the story under every helmet and go to work– sure, a lot of kids lives were better as a result of the time we spent there and worked but I promise you, no life was better than mine as a result of, of what I learned about the human spirit and what I learned that those kids taught me.
Tom: Looking back after, after coaching there, after volunteering there and working, getting to know those kids over six years, what are some things that if you could go back in a time machine and tell your first year volunteer self to look out for, be aware of, kind of what are some lessons you’d impart to your to yourself at the at the earliest stage?
Bill: First year, we were three and three. Now understand when I got there, their previous 10 years record was four wins and 95 losses. So I think three and three is pretty average, but at three and three, you know, they thought I was a fat redheaded version of Pete Carroll or something, because, you know, we were winning games and the kids were buying into the football and they’re yes or no, sir. We were buying new equipment. We were doing all kinds of good things and they were all buying into football. But it became apparent early on that we also needed to coach character and commitment and teamwork and the value of hard work and the basic fundamentals and tenants that serve you well off the days of playing football are over.
And so halfway through the season. We’re three and three and the kids are all into the football and yes or no, sir. But only half the team was buying in the important stuff. The other half, the team, while buying into the football, the minute football was over, practice your games, they were back into the streets and involved in some of the same destructive behavior they’d been involved in that metaphorically got their lives to four and 95 in the first place.
And I was frustrated. So I went to my guy and — every coach has a guy — and I went to my guy and I said, “Bo, what do I got to do to get that half the team to buy into the important stuff like your half the team?” And this is the guy that had a lot of real conversations with me early and he looked at me and he dismissively said, “Oh, just keep doing what you’re doing, coach.”
If you have children, you know the tone. And I’m like, “No man, real talk. What do I got to do to get that half the team to buy into the important stuff? You’re all into the football, but on the stuff that really matters, I can’t get them to buy in.” And he said, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, coach.” I said, “You’re not going to hurt my feelings.”
He said, “All right. They’re trying to figure out if you’re a Turkey person or not.”
Bill: And I was like, what are you talking about? He said, coach, every Christmas and Thanksgiving people come into our neighborhood from out from where you live and they drop off hams and gifts and turkeys. And we take them because we ain’t got none, but then they leave and we never see him again. Makes you wonder if they’re doing that because they really care about us or they’re doing that to make themselves feel good. And he looked me dead in the eyes. And he said, excuse my French, but he said, what the hell are you doing here? Coach? And you know, that really upset me because I was there every day. We were buying equipment. We were pouring in these kids. And if you serve in a soup kitchen or give turkeys away at Thanksgiving, that’s a beautiful thing, that’s not the story. It’s — what’s your motive? And the truth was I was digging what people were saying about the work I was doing in my social circles, patting me on the back for being a wonderful guy and I was buying into this work that I was doing, you know, I’m such a wonderful guy.
And the truth was, in some regard, my motives weren’t all pure. And it was then that I said, you know what? The greatest leaders of our time always give credit to the followers when things go well, and they shield the followers when things don’t go well. And when I was asked about Manassas, I quit talking about all the stuff I was doing.
I started talking about the amazing strides that kids were making and giving credit to the kids, due credit, that they deserved. And once I started doing that, those kids that weren’t buying in before and stuff, little by little started migrating in because they could see intrinsically that my motive was not to build myself up in the environment as a result of doing the work, but it was really for the simple edification of the kids.
And so in answer to your question, long-winded answer, I tried to go as quickly as I could, but the answer is this: If you’re ever gonna work to serve people that are not as fortunate as you, make sure you’re motivated by their success, and not your exaltation in society.
Tom: What motivated you, what prompted you to start volunteering in the first place?
This is not a light commitment. This is not handing out turkeys. This is day in, day out grind, that depends on buy in for lots of people and there’s lots of distractions. This is a huge commitment. How do you start on a road like that? And that kind of intensity of commitment?
Bill: My dad left home when I was four. My mom was married and divorced five times. My fourth father shot at us down a hallway — I had to dive out a window to save myself — one night after drinking a handle of scotch, frankly. And the only people in my life coming up that counterbalanced the chaos and dysfunction that was my childhood were my coaches.
If it weren’t for my coaches and sport, I really don’t know how I’d ended up. So, when I graduated from college, I saw football and coaching football and basketball and being a teacher as a calling. I was working on my doctorate and so I took a job coaching and teaching while I was working on my doctorate.
And I met Lisa and started having kids and 17,000 a year didn’t pay to get your doctorate and formula and diapers for four kids and a beautiful wife. And so I had to get out of coaching as a profession. Pragmatically I had to pay the bills. But it didn’t ever change that that was my passion. And so in the state of Tennessee, you can be what’s called a certified non-faculty coach if you take a bunch of classes.
So I did that. So I continued to coach while I got into the private world, building my business, because that was my passion because of the way that I grew up. And when I started my business, I had 17,000 and I needed industrial property. So I went to the poorest, worst place in the city to buy industrial property.
That’s where I started my business and it happened to be a half mile from the school called Manassas that I didn’t even know existed. And the opportunity came up to employ my passion in a place that I could efficiently do it while growing my business. And so I showed up to Manassas having no idea what I was walking into, but just because I was passionate about coaching football.
And… What kept me there and what helped me grind for that six and a half years was to see the unbelievable difficult circumstances that the players I coached came from. We’re talking really difficult circumstances and despite it, they showed up every day with yes sir and no sir and with a smile on their face and eager to go to work to be part of one positive thing and they started adopting these tenets and fundamentals into their life and they inspired me to keep coming back.
Tom: I hear a lot that football maybe in particular or team sports in general build character. Is that true?
Bill: Nope. Football reveals character. Sports reveal character. Difficult times in your business reveal character. A problem with your children reveals character. An argument with your spouse reveals character.
Bill: It’s how you handle… The stuff that reveals character characters, not built by the trying times characters built in preparation for the trying times when you spend a significant amount of time buying into commitment, civility, discipline. All of those core values and tenets that are in my book that I talk about all the time.
What that does is that gives you a foundation to handle the tough times. And when the tough times come, the way you handle them reveals the character that you’ve built, building that foundation in preparation for the tough times. I don’t think the tough times build character. I think they reveal it. I think what builds character is the effort you put into building the foundation and preparation of those trying times.
Tom: Yeah, I think that cuts against the common kind of conception of of what do you do with with team sports? What do you think some of the values of team sports are in terms of basically the caveat of what you noted in terms of encouraging kids to play team sports and that sort of thing. What are the what are the great values that that it can have?
Bill: Well, I mean if you’re boxing, which is not a team sport, and somebody hits you in the nose and it really hurts. You can throw on the towel. When you’re playing a team sport, there’s a difference of being hurt and being injured. If you’re injured, get a cot, go to the hospital. If you’re hurt, you figure out a way to summon up the temerity to continue on.
Not because you really feel like it, but because there’s somebody standing next to you that needs you. And, and I think in a microcosm that is somewhat a challenge we face today in our society, which is this me, me, me environment. You know, there used to be a time where I may disagree with you, but I would defend with my life your right to say it.
Now it’s, I may disagree with you and you’re my enemy, so screw you. And I think that become, I think that manifests itself because we no longer see each other as one big team. And when we get hurt or we get injured, we want to play the victim and the angry person and pull back and lash out when we can, rather than understand there’s a certain civility and a certain non-threatening conversation that needs to be happened that needs to happen around those occasions where we got to remember.
We all want basically the same things in this world. We may have a different viewpoint on how to get there, but we all want the same things in this world. And if we’ll always remember we’re pulling for each other rather than apart for one another, we’d be a lot better off in society. And I think team sports metaphorically can set people up to at least have the basis to enter culture and society with a different approach
Tom: Tell me a little bit about some of the obstacles to character building What are some of the things that parents and or coaches do or don’t do that either? facilitate or or inhibit the kind of development and maturation and the kinds of maturity that you’d like to see as adolescents grow into adulthood?
Bill: Kids are unbelievable judges of character Now, they may not speak about it, but they are fantastic judges of character. And if you’re talking one thing and illustrating another in the way you lead your own life, they will know you’re a fraud and they will not buy in. So, as a business owner, as a father, as a coach, in any role that you have a lead, you better walk what you talk. Because if you don’t walk, what you talk, everything you talk is complete BS.
Uh, that’s one. And the second is if your kid is not starting or your kid is not getting the playing time you want, your first default should not be to go to the coach and ask why. You should explain to your kid, “Hey, Go to the coach and say, I would like to earn more playing time. Can you give me three or four things I need to accomplish to earn that playing time?”
The, the notion that I got to swoop in as a mommy or daddy and take care of my poor little Johnny or Jill, who’s not getting the playing time that she or I or he or I, and I’m going to go have a word with that coach is ultimately debilitating to the development of your child. Your child needs to have hard times. Your child needs to have difficulties to overcome while you’re still there to mentor them through it. But to take it from them, you are doing them a disservice And so I would say two of the biggest barriers to character development for children are well intentioned but misguided parents And coaches who say one thing and live out another.
Tom: I wanna turn to a few questions about faith. I imagine you’ve had the opportunity to speak to faith communities, even speak in churches. I’m wondering how do you light a fire under people with faith to take faith and translate it into action? Do you have any encouraging stories of getting from the one to the other because, you know, worshiping God with your lips is one thing, but doing the spade work, I feel like to, to practice it is a, is another matter altogether.
Bill: My wife, Lisa, about four years ago, I was on the coast on a business trip, headed back home. And she told me to go down to the docks and get some fresh shrimp for a shrimp boil because she loves shrimp. So I go down to the docks. And when I got there, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a wharf the docks on, on the Gulf of Mexico, but there’s fish heads and sulfur, and it just stinks.
It really reeks. I mean, it’s gut-wrenchingly gross. But I sat there on the docks waiting for the shrimp boats to come in. To buy the shrimp right off the boats, had a cooler, the shrimp boats came in and I found something, the only thing more wretched than the wharf and the docks were the fishermen themselves.
Bill: They, deodorant’s more of a suggestion than a requirement. Marlboro reds rolled up and smoking two packs, brushing the teeth doesn’t really matter. The sweat from the sun and the, and the surf. And I mean, the fishermen are, it’s really not an attractive scene, but I started to think about it that evening getting my shrimp and how good the shrimp are going to be in my, in my trunk and it dawned on me that those stinky grotesque fishermen are exactly who Christ surrounded himself with when he came here, not Oscar winning football coaches, not the beautiful people.
He surrounded himself with the most disadvantaged people that the world had to offer and he served them. And as Christians. If our number one goal is to be called Christ-like, what is more Christ-like than doing what Christ did, which was surround himself with the people? For the most disadvantaged communities around our country and serving them.
And so I don’t think doing good things for community is a nice thing to do. I think if you’re a Christian, it’s a requirement.
Tom: It’s good to reflect on that. I was thinking, who starts a revolution with a bunch of stinky, dirty fishermen, right?
Bill: Christ. And who starts a revelation with a bunch of average folks, just normal people. Not the DC people, not the people, not all the fancy suits, the normal people. The normal people are the people who always start a revolution.
Tom: That is a very interesting segue I’d like to make to a new podcast of yours and some aspirations that you have. I wonder if you can tell me about, um, the normal people that you hope to work with.
Bill: So I was, I guess I was on my soapbox and… Feeling particularly giddy during an interview, uh, about a year and a half ago.
And I was asked a question about what I thought we needed to do to fix so many of these cultural and societal ills that seem to continue to plague us. And I, I said, and I believe that don’t think the fancy people in New York on the national news media sites using big words, looking all pretty, I don’t think they fix anything.
And if, and if anything, they actually are served by great deal of power and money to craft narratives that continue to divide us. Actually, I don’t think people on the right or left side of the aisle have been particularly useful serving the most disadvantaged among us. In fact, I would say that at the worst government may even be paternalistic, but certainly woeful in their efforts. Rather, I think it’s just going to take an army of normal folks, just you and me, regardless of who we are, what we look like, where we come from, how we worship, how we vote, just normal folks who see little areas of need in their corners of their communities. And fill those areas of needs and what would our country look like if all us normal folk just said, I reject the narrative.
I reject the divisiveness. And I just want to serve. If we had hundreds of thousands of millions of people in the United States that rejected all the noise and just said, I don’t care who you are, how you think, how you worship, who you love, what you do. I’m going to serve in my corner of the community so that I can maybe exact some small measure change.
And if little by little, we had millions of people doing that. And then in community as an army, celebrating one another, doing those things, maybe we could change the country. And so I said that in this interview. And then about seven months later, the guy who interviewed me called me back and he said, you know, I have, I can’t quit thinking about what you said in our interview.
And I was like, Oh gosh, did I cuss? I didn’t know what he’s talking about. And he said, no. And he repeated what I just told you. I said, yeah. And he said, man, I want to start a podcast where we go around the country interviewing people. Nobody knows anything about normal people that do extraordinary things, tell their stories, certainly be entertaining, inspirational, redemptive, but also, try to share the stories in a way that the guests leave their contact information, and we start creating all these blueprints for anything any normal person could do, and, and leave our personal contact information after each episode. So if somebody hears a story, sure they’re entertained, but they’re inspired to do that themselves, they have a blueprint of how to do it.
And people to reach out to, to assist them and mentor them through the process. And we’re going to call this thing ‘an army of normal folks.’ And so I said, well, that sounds cool. I’ll try it. And I, I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m a football coach and a lumberman, but we started interviewing people and we released it about three and a half months ago, and it’s been as high as number 10 in the U.S. on Apple. And, um, it’s resonating because normal people are tired of all this dysfunction, and they they like hearing stories about normal people that are produced well and entertaining, but that also inspire people to get involved in their communities.
Bill: And that’s the idea.
Tom: I hope our listeners, I hope the listeners to your podcast find inspiration and find concrete ways that which they can take that inspiration, then invest it somewhere and put themselves and don’t feel like they have to be a top performer or they have to be a pro right that what you were yet do you put one foot in front of another.
So how about somebody who feels like I’m a normal person. And, you know, Bill, you’ve set the bar too high. I can’t coach, you know, for six years at Manassas. What’s the first two steps I take?
Bill: Find your passion and your discipline and let them meet at opportunity. So you don’t have to be an A lister. You don’t have to be part of an NGO.
You don’t have to be tapped on the shoulder. We really can create an army of normal folks doing extraordinary things across our country and it doesn’t have to be serving 17,000 people can be serving two or three. It doesn’t take but two or three served if we got two or three million doing it. You can literally change the country.
Tom: I’ve got a wrap up question I want to ask you. I’m gonna bring you back to the anecdote that you were a 15 year old I would want to know — that 15 year old Bill, what would his impression be if he were to learn of how your life has played out as it is if he were to meet you now?
Tell me a little bit what would that conversation look like and how might he react to the life that you’ve lived?
Bill: I would want to tell my 15 year old self about the mistakes I made so that he wouldn’t have to make them. And I think the other thing I would tell my 15 year old self is to always remain faithful, because there was a time in my life in college, and shortly after college, that I didn’t have a relationship with God.
And that was some of the tougher times in my life. And I think had if I had maintained that relationship with God, I might have not suffered some of the… Some of the things I suffered and then my 15 year old self would probably be frankly pretty impressed because sports mattered and you know, I’ve been able to have my cake and eat it, too. I’ve been able to grow a big business and and be blessed beyond anything I deserve and at the same time be able to coach basketball and baseball and football and soccer coach a lot of other people’s kids coach my own kids and grow so richly from that experience and so I think I would tell my 15 year old self a lot of, a lot of pointers and maybe my 15 year old self would be like, yeah, you screwed up along the way, but you didn’t end up so bad after all.
Tom: Very good. Well, Bill, thanks for taking this time to talk to me today.
Bill: Thanks very much for the conversation. And I can’t wait to listen to it.
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