- Jane Sumner Special to the American-Statesman
No car chases. No guns. No fire-breathing monsters. Just a thrilling, inspirational film about a legendary coach and a determined undersized player, whose grit on the field and valor in life fills hearts and lifts spirits.
A must-see for every member of the Longhorn nation, “My All American” stars Aaron Eckhart (“In the Company of Men”) as Coach Darrell K Royal and Finn Wittrock (“American Horror Story”) as defensive back Freddie Steinmark, whose photo players tap as they stream through the tunnel to cheering fans at every game.
Five-foot-nine, 150-pound Freddie was the little engine that could. The gutsy Longhorn safety knew he had to train harder, play tougher and run faster than his bigger, heavier teammates. But then he’d been playing football in the shadow of the Rockies with a hard-driving dad as coach since age seven.
After the opening flyover shot above Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, a reporter asks the retired coach, struggling with early Alzheimer’s, which of his 30 All-Americans affected him the most. When he names Steinmark, the reporter looks puzzled. “He wasn’t an All-American.” “No,” Royal retorts, “but he was my All-American.”
Written by first-time director Angelo Pizzo, who penned “Hoosiers,” “Rudy” and “The Game of Their Lives”, the biographical drama follows Steinmark from his Colorado boyhood to his valiant fight against bone cancer that made him a national symbol of courage.
To portray Royal, Eckhart, who also played a coach in “Any Given Sunday,” came to Texas a month ahead of the 40-day shoot last year to study the voice and mannerisms of the winningest coach in Texas history. In Austin, he’ll get an unintentional laugh when Royal tells his team their 6-4 record in 1967 is “unacceptable.”
Former Longhorn and film football consultant Tom Campbell, whose father “Iron Mike” was defensive coach with Royal for 21 years, has high praise for Eckhart, who listened to Royal’s speeches downloaded on his iPhone. “He talks and walks like Royal and learned how to hold his hands and arms,” Campbell says.
For the role of charismatic Freddie, known for his explosive play and gift for making folks reach deeper, strive harder and fulfill their dreams, Pizzo read lots of talented athlete/actors.
But the job went to 29-year-old Wittrock, a Juilliard grad, who never played football but bears an uncanny resemblance to Freddie and captures his life-loving spirit. Campbell, who knew Freddie from the time he arrived at the University of Texas, says Wittrock embodies the essence of the confident but humble competitor who “built up people.”
Robin Tunney (“The Mentalist”) and Michael Reilly Burke (“Shameless”) play Freddie’s parents. Rett Terrell (“More Scenes from a Gay Marriage”) is his high school and Horn teammate Bobby Mitchell, and Austin native and L.A.-based actor Juston Street does himself and his late father proud as famed UT quarterback James Street.
Colt McCoy recruited players and acted as consultant. Brother Case plays Arkansas quarterback Bill Montgomery. (“At least I threw the pass that helped Texas win the game,” said Case, who reluctantly put on the red-and-white Razorback jersey.) And look for Longhorn linebacker Glen Halsell, No. 67, getting worked on for a separated shoulder. It’s Freddie’s nephew Freddie Joe Steinmark, son of his brother Sammy.
Irish actress Sarah Bolger, looking like a creamy blonde in a 1940s Andy Hardy film, is love interest Linda Wheeler. And the squad of 45 college football veterans, including UT All-American and former pro Jordan Shipley as Cotton Speyrer, who practiced hitting for two weeks with high school coaches, deliver slam-bang gridiron action.
While sports movies can be more fiction than fact, Freddie’s teammate Tom Campbell, who made the key interception in the “Game of the Century” against Arkansas on Dec. 6, 1969, calls the film “95 percent authentic and accurate.” Pizzo based his screenplay on the book “Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story” by Jim Dent, a sportswriter turned author, now serving time in a Texas state prison after reaching a plea bargain following his 10th DWI.
Locations for the period film lensed by Frank G. DeMarco (“All Is Lost”) and flashily edited by Dan Zimmerman (“The Maze Runner”) include TCU’s Amon Carter Stadium, the Cotton Bowl, the Alamodome (scene of “The Big Shootout”), UT Intramural Fields, Smithville and Elgin middle school fields and Austin Film Studios (Royal’s office). With movie magic, Manor doubled as Colorado.
John Paesano (“The Maze Runner”) composed the pulsing score; Bruce Curtis (“Bernie”) designed the 1960s production; and Kari Perkins (“Bernie”), using Freddie’s autobiography with Blackie Sherrod’s “I Play to Win” as her bible, designed costumes. All uniforms were made from scratch. Credit for principal financing of the film goes to Austin energy entrepreneur and UT alum Ben “Bud” Brigham’s Anthem Productions.
According to Bower Yousse, a close boyhood friend, teammate and co-author with Thomas J. Cryan of the excellent authorized biography “Freddie Steinmark: Faith, Family, Football,” “My All American,” about the UT legend who inspired the National Cancer Act, will be screened for Congress in Washington later this month.