Freddie’s Song: A Review of ‘My All-American’

New movie tells the true story of Catholic athlete who lived his faith on and off the field

Finn Wittrock as real-life athlete Freddie Steinmark.
Finn Wittrock as real-life athlete Freddie Steinmark. (photo: Aviron Pictures)

The made-for-TV movie Brian’s Song was originally broadcast just after Thanksgiving 1971. It told the story of Chicago Bears’ player Brian Piccolo (James Caan), his roommate, Hall of Famer Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) and Piccolo’s diagnosis of terminal cancer five years into his professional career.

It was the fourth most-watched television film in history at the time and the first male tear-jerker. Many can recall the film’s impact on male viewers during subsequent rebroadcasts during Thanksgiving many years after its original airing. A remake was broadcast in 2001.

While there are other such films in the sentimental sports’ canon, My All-American cannot escape comparison to Brian’s Song. It, too, tells the story of a young football star facing tragedy at a young age. It, too, concentrates on the player’s relationships with his teammate, girlfriend and coach. It, too, is being released in the midst of the football season, just in time for Thanksgiving. What is a pleasant surprise is the film’s treatment of the protagonist’s Catholic faith.

My All-American tells the dramatic and true story of Freddie Steinmark, a football player from Denver who is driven by a singular determination — and his loving father — toward an ultimate career in the sport. Film fans will discover hints of Rudy, in the underdog story of Steinmark’s training and efforts. Indeed, this film is co-written by Angelo Pizzo, the writer of that 1993 film. He shares a writing credit with Jim Dent, who wrote Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story. While fast, aggressive and talented, Steinmark’s small size prevents colleges from taking a serious look at him.

Steinmark is portrayed by the likable Finn Wittrock (Noah, Unbroken), with a fierce intensity and determination. He takes his high-school sweetheart Linda (Sarah Bolger) up to a lookout over Denver, saying, “I can see my future …” pointing out his high school, the University of Colorado, where he plans to attend college, and the Broncos’ stadium, where he one day plans to play.

Steinmark’s chance comes when his Wheat Ridge High School coach convinces a scout from the University of Texas to watch films of Steinmark. The scout has come out of interest in fellow teammate Bobby Mitchell (Rett Terrell). Mitchell and Steinmark travel to the University of Texas, where they are both offered scholarships by legendary football player and coach Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart). Royal is impressed with the way Steinmark attacks.

The first half of the film follows Steinmark’s efforts and a grueling spring training with the Longhorns under Royal. “Football doesn’t build character,” Royal tells the hopefuls. “It eliminates the weak ones.” Two hundred players are whittled down to a 100-man roster. Steinmark makes the cut as a fourth-string safety. An assistant coach tells Royal, “The more I push him, the more he answers the call.”

Coach Royal develops the wishbone, triple-option offense that succeeds after a very fitful start. As the 1969 season starts, Royal elevates Steinmark, then just a sophomore, to starting safety. Together, the team has an incredible season. Throughout it, Steinmark continues to play, despite increasing pain in his left leg.

The film is remarkably respectful of Steinmark’s Catholic faith. His family home is decorated with pictures of Pope Paul VI, a crucifix, a statue and painting of Mary, and a depiction of the Last Supper. His parents speak of praying. We’re told that Steinmark attends Mass daily. Midway through the film, we’re treated to a montage of scenes from Steinmark’s time with the Longhorns. Amidst the montage, Steinmark is shown praying, at Mass and on his knees, reverently receiving Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

Coming when it does, in the middle of the film, and between the film’s first half, about his football rise, and prior to the cross that is to come, it demonstrates that, above all, it is Steinmark’s Catholic faith that grounds him. With Christ at the center of his life, he is able to deal with the joys and sufferings of life, while continuing to remain strong and encourage his teammates.

The film effectively demonstrates this by showing, not telling. The film never preaches. At one point in the film, Steinmark offers counsel to Mitchell, who has lost his brother during the war in Vietnam. Mitchell is angry, and he yells that “nothing does any good” in helping him to deal with the pain. In response, Steinmark makes the Sign of the Cross, gets down on his knees and prays silently before, and for, his teammate.

The film’s climax recreates the 1969 championship “Game of the Century” between the Texas Longhorns and the Arkansas Razorbacks. It does so with a realism that appropriately captures the era. Despite intense pain, Steinmark valiantly plays through the game, helping his team to a 15-14 victory.

Here, the film shifts gears, as Steinmark is left to fight a much more difficult battle: the battle for his life. The film concludes with the team’s 1970 Cotton Bowl victory.

The film is inspiring and moving. It isn’t epic. It’s not artsy. It’s a character-driven, straightforward, biopic sports film and a chaste love story that will appeal to both men and women, sports fans and not.

The film’s weakness is that it suffers from a plethora of one-dimensional characters, all of whom act pretty much as we expect them to. They lack complexity. Steinmark and Royal are interesting, but we don’t get to know them or their motivations all that deeply. The same is true of Steinmark’s parents and his girlfriend. At times, the film is a bit cliché.

The story is carried along with surprisingly little dialogue. It tells the story without a lot of fanfare or the special effects and glitzy angles that have dominated many more recent sports dramas. Instead, it relies on its very true story and realistic action. In so doing, it introduces us to a courageous and faith-centered athlete whose hope and perseverance we can both admire and emulate. Like its predecessor, it too may prove that men do have tear ducts.

Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.

Caveat Spectator: Mild cursing and rear male nudity during a team prank. Rated PG.