The weekends are a wonderful time to get caught up on housework, take a trip to the beach or mountains, or grab a few extra hours of sleep. There’s also the opportunity to sit down with some friends, grab some snacks, and enjoy a game of football (whether it’s high school on Friday, college on Saturday, or professional on Sunday). For a few hours, players do battle on the field to determine if their team is better than another in a game that’s a little over a century old. It’s often a test of courage and bravado for those playing—one that if passed, can bring honor and glory to a team (and perhaps an individual player who does well). But we don’t often get to learn the backstory of these players.
Freddie Steinmark may not be a familiar name in college football history, but the University of Texas student has a story that exudes determination, commitment, courage, and hope. In the new film My All American, director Angelo Pizzo brings his story to light. The viewer ends up discovering what it means to never give up on one’s dreams—even if there are some pitfalls along the way.
The story begins with a student reporter in the office of legendary football coach Darrell Royal. She asks him who his favorite All-American was at the University of Texas. When Coach Royal says it was Freddie Steinmark (played by Finn Wittrock), she reminds him that he was never selected for that honor. He comments that Steinmark was his All-American before the scene shifts to the state of Colorado. Steinmark’s high school hadn’t won their division in a quarter century, but there was hope. In addition to Freddie, the team had a new player from California named Bobby Mitchell (Rett Terrell) who was a great running back. The team begins to do well, defeating their arch-rival and putting up a fantastic season.
Freddie is good at football, is smart, and is a devout Catholic. He has the trophy girlfriend in Linda (Sara Bolger) and he plans to play at Notre Dame, but isn’t built for the rigors of college football. Schools tell his father (Michael Reilly Burke) that Freddie needs to go to a junior college first and bulk up before they’ll consider him. This frustrates his father, who, along with his wife Gloria (Robin Tunney), has pushed Freddie to be his best in all areas of life, although they’re quite poor. When the University of Texas asks to look at Bobbie, they take a look at Freddie–and offer both a scholarship.
Coach Royal (Aaron Eckhart) knows tons of guys want to play on UT’s football team, so he makes the practices rough and tough in order to weed out players. At one point he looks at his charges and says, “Gentlemen . . . impress me” before putting them through a grueling practice. Freddie’s skill and sheer determination to try a new position (he was a running back in high school and is asked to play safety and kick returner) impresses Royal enough to put him on the field as a freshman.
The UT team is absolutely horrible but starts picking up wins once Coach Royal installs a new offensive scheme called the triple option. It is effective enough that UT begins to be considered for the national championship the following year. The wins keep piling up and eventually lead to a winner-take-all game between the Longhorns and the University of Arkansas in 1969. Freddie is still playing at a top level, but has noticed an infrequent pain in his leg. Linda (who goes to UT as well) encourages him to see a doctor, but he doesn’t until after he has to be taken out of the national title game due to ineffectiveness. The doctor’s findings suddenly render football a non-priority, forcing him to fight for his life. This fight encapsulates who Freddie Steinmark is and cements his legacy in the eyes of Coach Royal.
My All-American, like all football players in high school, has the ability to become something bigger than the sum of its parts. Does the film succeed in doing that? For me, I’m not sure that it does. Pizzo’s track record with sports-themed films has been nothing short of stellar (he directed the acclaimed titles Hoosiers and Rudy), but something doesn’t quite feel right about My All American. It’s not the cinematography, which is top-notch and provides an archival feel to the story. It’s not the sports sequences, which showcase some bone-crunching tackles and fantastic build-up in the championship game.
The problem lies in the characters themselves. Freddie is fully fleshed out as a determined, courageous football player who fights to get where he is, but the others are very one-note. Steinmark’s girlfriend Linda is given very little to work with other than being a non-married companion. His parents aren’t given much more in the way of characterization. Even some of the main football players (such as quarterback James Street (Juston Street)) are very static, giving the film a determined focus on Freddie and his life. This can work in some instances, but when the lead character is looked at by other characters as a role model, it diminishes the effectiveness of the overall product. It’s unfortunate, as My All American has the potential to line up with Pizzo’s other masterworks. Instead, it comes off as uplifting but bland.
There is a scene in the film that merits discussion—one between Bobby and Freddie. After Bobby’s brother is killed while serving in Vietnam, he goes out and loses his mind, ripping a placard promoting the war. Freddie calms Bobby down, gets him back to the room, and asks if he can pray for him. Bobby isn’t religious and reminds Freddie, “Just because you aren’t a religious person doesn’t mean you can’t pray at a time like this.” The scene ends with Freddie praying and Bobby fretting, only to start praying as well. Bobby has seen enough of Freddie’s life to know that he means what he says and that maybe prayer does work.
To me, this is why he gave in and called on God in his time of need. Peter says that followers of Jesus should seek to live such good lives among the rest of the world that people take notice and glorify God themselves (1 Peter 2:12). When followers of Jesus make mockeries of the faith they claim through their actions, ideas, or even reactions to other believers (see the whole Starbucks red cup non-issue), it doesn’t help the cause of Christ. Freddie’s example was notable enough to challenge the lives of those who came into contact with him and make them better in the long run. May we all do the same so the world can see Jesus in the right light.