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‘Freddie Steinmark’: A celebration of heart and courage

It’s been 46 years since Freddie Steinmark last took the field as a Texas Longhorn safety — 44 since the undersized defensive back with a gutsy drive to win lost his nationally publicized battle with bone cancer.

But the popular, determined player whose photo with the word “Heart” flashes on the Freddie Steinmark Scoreboard’s Jumbotron before each home game at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium lives on in Longhorn lore.

So it’s fitting that the University of Texas Press is publishing this month Bower Yousse’s and Thomas J. Cryan’s “Freddie Steinmark: Faith, Family, Football,” the first authorized biography of the feisty 5-foot-9-inch competitor whose fearless play and valiant fight against osteosarcoma made him a symbol of courage and hope.

On Nov. 13, Freddie’s story in the film “My All American” — with Finn Wittrock as Steinmark and Aaron Eckhart as Coach Darrell Royal — will be released in theaters nationwide.

Two days after Freddie played despite severe thigh pain in “The Game of the Century” against Arkansas on Dec. 6, 1969, X-rays revealed a malignant bone tumor. Four days later, doctors at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston amputated his left leg.

But only 20 days after the operation, Freddie, balancing on one leg with the aid of brand-new aluminum crutches, was on the sidelines at the Cotton Bowl, cheering his undefeated teammates to victory over Notre Dame.

The new biography from screenwriter, copywriter and author Yousse, a close boyhood friend and teammate, and media executive, attorney and author Cryan, legal adviser to Freddie’s family, is the third book about the Coloradan whose image UT players tap as they stream through the tunnel to Joe Jamail Field.

Freddie’s 1971 memoir “I Play to Win,” written with the help of legendary sportswriter Blackie Sherrod, is compelling reading, frank and involving. Copies of the out-of-print book, published two months after Freddie’s death, go for $150 or more online.

In 2011, Thomas Dunne Books released former sportswriter Jim Dent’s moving if sometimes hyperbolic “Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story,” which served as the basis for “My All American,” directed and scripted by Angelo Pizzo, who wrote “Hoosiers,” “Rudy” and “The Game of Their Lives.”

Before turning talk show host and author (“Manziel Madness”), Dent, now serving 10 years in state prison after reaching a plea agreement following his 10th DWI, covered the Dallas Cowboys for the Dallas Times-Herald and Fort Worth Star-Telegram for more than a decade.

According to Yousse, whose early life intertwined with Freddie’s family in sports, the Steinmarks were not happy with what they considered manufactured quotes, distortions and inaccuracies, especially the way Freddie’s father was depicted, in the Sherrod and Dent books.

So Yousse and Cryan, who enjoy the family’s confidence, last August pitched UT Press a new “authorized” biography that would correct perceived errors and coincide with release of the film “My All American,” which was shot last year in Austin and other Texas cities.

“Authorized,” Yousse says, does not mean “sanitized,” but the only murkiness appears in Freddie’s sophomore year, when his father, a Denver K-9 cop, fails to appear for the family’s 5 o’clock sharp dinner and doesn’t return until invited back weeks later by his wife. We can only speculate the cause.

After Big Fred returned home, the authors report, the family’s emotional life revolved around Freddie. An observant Catholic, Steinmark looked after younger brother Sammy and trained, played and studied hard, recited the rosary every night, twice before a game, and kept his eyes on the prize: a scholarship to a big university — Notre Dame was his dream — and after college, a career in the pros.

But while he was probably the biggest high school football star in Colorado and winner of the Denver Post’s Gold Helmet Award as best scholar-athlete in the state, Notre Dame and other Division I schools sniffed at his size, 152 pounds as a high school senior. But Darrell Royal, himself once a 5-foot-10-inch, 159-pound Sooner star, saw his skills on game film and offered him and his 200-pound teammate Bobby Mitchell scholarships.

In time, the hard-charging, high-country kid, who arrived in Texas two weeks ahead of practice to acclimate to the heat, became one of only two sophomores Royal named as starters. The other was Tommy Nobis (1963-65), the great linebacker.

Not as personal as “I Play to Win,” nor as dishy as “Courage Beyond the Game,” the UT Press biography is a straightforward, affecting narrative about a brief, inspiring life distilled from relationships with Freddie, his immediate and extended family, friends, teammates and coaches.

Unlike Dent, there’s no mention, say, of Freddie’s girlfriend Linda’s issues with Father Fred Bomar, the “football priest” and confidante of Steinmark, who moved into the St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church rectory for privacy after the UT football awards banquet. Or of some of Freddie’s livelier post-op activities including dating, dancing and a visit to the Playboy Club in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

The first authors with unrestrained access to the Steinmarks — Dent reportedly did not interview any family member — open with a chapter on the childhoods, courtship and marriage of his parents: petite Gloria Marchitti from a big, tight-knit Italian family in North Denver and athletic Fred Steinmark (Big Fred), whose promising career in major league baseball was cut short by injuries from a head-on, car-truck collision and fatherhood.

For a fun-but-firm sports dad who had his first-born son in two midget football leagues by age seven, preached the doctrine of “110 percent effort” every play, every drill, every day and taught that friendship ends on the playing field, Big Fred fares better here than in Sherrod’s and Dent’s accounts.

A little over half the book with 40 photographs traces the arc of Freddie’s journey from the rural community of Wheat Ridge outside Denver to the UT campus; the remainder how he lived his last 17 months in the spotlight — continuing his class load, attending to the thousands of letters and many speaking invitations, coaching freshmen, serving as spokesman for the American Cancer Society and finally undergoing chemotherapy — with humor, grit and grace.

Yousse writes that he was in shock when Freddie, 22, died on June 6, 1971. And his regard for the kind, funny and supportive friend, whose father was their football and baseball coach for many of the years they were teammates, reverberates through the 282 pages.

The authors avoid Dent’s excesses, such as calling this “the best sports story ever” and Steinmark “the most courageous person to ever play sports.” Instead they capture Freddie’s cheerful essence, vividly recreate key games and posit his life against the canvas of history, including the Vietnam war and assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

Those who knew him say Steinmark had an uncanny power to lift people’s spirits, to make them feel better and fulfill their dreams. UT assistant coach Fred Akers described this as Freddie’s gift for “lighting it up,” and he had “that effect on everyone.”

If so, Yousse and Cryan, now busy making a documentary about Steinmark — principally financed, like the feature, by Austin energy entrepreneur and UT alum Ben “Bud” Brigham’s Anthem Productions — have written a deeply informed and proper tribute to the little Texas Longhorn with Heart.

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