AUSTIN, Texas — The tale has all the trappings of a made-for-Hollywood tear-jerker: courage, football, an undersized player, against-all-odds pluck.
But the story of Freddie Steinmark, a former University of Texas defensive back who won a national championship in 1969 then succumbed to bone cancer two years later, struggled for decades to reach the big screen.
Today, film crews are spread across UT practice fields and other Austin sites to finally recreate the story known well by Texas football enthusiasts. The movie, My All American, portrays the story of Steinmark, who had his leg amputated the year his team won the title and later died. It stars Aaron Eckhart (as legendary Coach Darrell K. Royal) and newcomer Finn Wittrock (as Steinmark). It’s scheduled to be completed and ready for theaters by the end of the year.
The film is written and directed by Angelo Pizzo, the screenwriter who penned such sports classics as Rudy and Hoosiers, guaranteeing some potent heart-strumming. Unlike his previous films, Pizzo says friends and colleagues became misty-eyed just by reading the Steinmark script.
“This is a movie that will have an amazing emotional connection to an audience, if we do it right,” Pizzo says. “I just couldn’t figure out why this hadn’t been done before.”
What finally propelled the Steinmark story to production was not a Hollywood deal-maker but an oil-and-gas executive from Houston.
Bud Brigham, an energy entrepreneur and UT grad, was approached with the project three years ago and immediately latched on. He gathered a few other Texas alums and raised the financing independently, sidestepping the Hollywood studio route.
Under this setup, Brigham and his colleagues have final say on production and have awarded Pizzo and the crew unprecedented creative freedom, cast and crew members say. His one caveat: the story has to remain unflinchingly true.
“There’s so much texture and richness in this,” Brigham says. “This will not be ‘based on a true story’ – this will be a true story. That’s important to us.”
Steinmark was an undersized defensive back from Colorado who was overlooked by most football programs until Royal recruited him in 1967. He quickly rose to the starting squad and became a leader on the 1969 team. That team won a dramatic come-from-behind matchup against the Arkansas Razorbacks, later dubbed the “Game of the Century,” and went on to win the school’s second national championship.
Six days after the game against Arkansas, Steinmark was diagnosed with bone cancer and his left leg was amputated. He died two years later, at age 22, and became enshrined in Texas lore. Before each home game, UT players still tap a bronze plaque depicting Steinmark’s story before running out to the field.
Portraying such a weighty chapter in UT history has been a daunting task for cast and crew. Eckhart, who starred in films such as Thank You for Smoking and Rabbit Hole, arrived in Austin a month before filming to work on capturing Royal’s accent and cadence. He quickly realized the enormity of his task when, on his first night in town, he sat down to dinner at a downtown restaurant. A large oil painting of Royal loomed from a nearby wall.
“The town is absolutely crazy for Texas football,” Eckhart says.
A challenge soon surfaced for the actor: Nearly no one in Austin possessed Royal’s Oklahoma/Texas drawl. So Eckhart downloaded the former coach’s speeches on his iPhone and played endlessly while walking around the city. The film’s themes – camaraderie, courage, tragedy – will stretch beyond football fans, he says.
“It’s not about UT football,” Eckhart says. “It’s about life.”
Sports movies aren’t always successful and rarely transcend to become household names like Rudy and Hoosiers, says Charles Ramirez Berg, a film professor and historian at the University of Texas.
The Rocky franchise pulled in more than $500 million in gross ticket receipts and The Blind Side, the 2009 film starring Sandra Bullock, grossed $256 million, according to the website Box Office Mojo. But a long list of other sports movies barely break even or head straight to video.
What makes a sports movie successful is less about the action on the field and more about universal themes, Berg says.
“The best sports movies aren’t about sports,” he says. “They’re about other things: sacrifice, determination, the will to win.”
On a recent overcast day, the crew of My All American set up dollies and cameras at the UT intramural fields in central Austin, while actors pulled on football uniforms and noticeably thinner helmets than those used today. They were filming a pivotal scene: where Royal introduces the players to the “wishbone” offense, a hallmark of that team.
On the sidelines, a group of graying men chatted and occasionally chuckled at the action on the field. They were members of the original 1969 team, on set to provide accuracy tips to the filmmakers. On a shoot the previous day, they pointed out an inconsistency when a “hurt player” was carted off the field on a stretcher: Unless carrying off an unconscious player, Coach Royal didn’t allow stretchers on the field, says Tom Campbell, 65, a defensive back on the ‘69 team.
Overall, the depiction – from Eckhart’s portrayal of Royal to the equipment and dialogue – has been spot-on accurate, he says. It’s a story long overdue.
“This is one of the best football stories you could imagine,” Campbell says. “It should have been told 45 years ago.”