My All American scores but misses the point

by Bob Brown
Posted 11/17/15, 01:43 pm

My All American tells the true story of Freddie Steinmark’s short but remarkable life. Considered too small even by 1960s standards to play Division I football, Steinmark trained hard and became a star defensive back at the University of Texas. But his radiant personality made more of an impact on people than his shoulder pads did on opposing wide receivers. Although his faith must have had something to do with his character, the film unfortunately only superficially touches on the spiritual aspect of his life. And for a film about a football player—believe it or not—this one spends too much time on the gridiron.

“Son, I’m offering you a scholarship to the University of Texas.”

Coach Darrell Royal’s (Aaron Eckhart) words stun Steinmark. And, initially, his 165-pound presence on the Longhorns’ practice field surprises his new teammates. But Steinmark (Finn Wittrock) proves his mettle, leveling much larger players with a torpedo’s punch. By his sophomore year, Steinmark starts at safety and returns punts. He goes on to lead the Southwest Conference in interceptions, earning first team all-conference honors.

In his junior season, the fall of 1969, Steinmark plays through increasing pain in his left leg. Still, he helps Texas beat Arkansas 15-14 in the “Game of the Century.” But after the game, doctors diagnose Steinmark with osteogenic sarcoma—bone cancer. They amputate his left leg at the hip in an effort to save his life. A month later, Steinmark stands with crutches on the sidelines of the Cotton Bowl, where Texas defeats Notre Dame to win the national championship. (The film movingly ends with actual video footage taken in the Texas locker room after the Cotton Bowl.)

Doctors give Steinmark just a year to live. As usual, he outperforms expectations, but by only six months. Steinmark died in 1971 at the age of 22. For years since his death, University of Texas football players making their way out of the tunnel into the stadium during home games have saluted a plaque erected in Freddie Steinmark’s honor.

My All American (rated PG for thematic elements, several instances of language, and brief partial nudity) draws from a 2005 biography written by Jim Dent. The film notes Steinmark attended mass every day growing up and shows him praying (inaudibly) for a friend after a tragedy. He spends a lot of time with his girlfriend, Linda Wheeler (Sarah Bolger), with no hint of inappropriate behavior. But the film’s writers don’t permit Steinmark to explain the source of his inspirational conduct.

Instead, moviegoers get endless highlight reels—not actual footage, but staged replays. The Texas-Arkansas game, for example, seems to take nearly 10 minutes of screen time. Nevertheless, viewers will be charmed by a young man who converts competitors and legendary coaches into lifelong friends. It’s too bad the film left Steinmark’s faith on the sidelines.

Bob Brown

Bob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course.

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