Football fetishism has been a fact of life in movies almost since the beginning, and “My All-American” hardly represents the worst example of pigskin adulation the screen has ever witnessed. It is, however, yet another piece from Angelo Pizzo—who wrote “Hoosiers” and “Rudy” (and is here directing as well)—that’s supremely corny, even if the locale is no longer the fields of Indiana, where both those earlier films were set, but rather Texas.
The closest comparison one might draw is to “Knute Rockne, All-American,” the 1940 biopic of the Notre Dame coach that treated the death of his short-lived quarterback George Gipp as well. But in this case the emphasis has shifted. The picture is first and foremost a biography of Freddie Steinmark (Finn Wittrock), the Colorado youth who was deemed too small to play ball at his beloved Notre Dame, but wound up a star safety with the University of Texas Longhorns before being diagnosed in the course of the 1969 season with a cancerous tumor that required the amputation of his left leg. His appearance on the sidelines of the 1970 Cotton Bowl, in which Texas faced off against Notre Dame only twenty days after his surgery, is as much the stuff of pigskin legend as Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper” is, and Steinmark’s is obviously a tale designed to set the tear ducts flowing. But the script is at the same time a laudatory portrait of Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart), the UT coach who brought the kid to Austin and shepherded him through his career there.
In both instances, however, what the picture offers is as much hagiography as biography. Steinmark might well have been an all-around fine fellow, but he’s portrayed here as a flawless paragon—obedient to his parents, devoted to his faith, absolutely committed to the high-school sweetheart Linda (Sarah Bolger) who accompanies him to UT, an unswerving friend to Colorado teammate Bobby Mitchell (Rett Terrell), who also comes to Austin (and whom he supports after the death of his brother, a soldier in Vietnam), and a player who remains the sparkplug of his team even as he’s suffering intense pain. Amazingly in such films, he’s also shown actually studying—in the locker room, no less. (That’s a point in its favor, since in most pictures set in schools, you’d think that books were unknown commodities.) Wittrock brings an engaging smile and lots of energy to the character—as well as a sense of strength when the worst imaginable diagnosis comes—but the lack of a single failing in the script’s Steinmark doesn’t allow the actor to bring much shading or nuance to his performance.
Royal, too, is portrayed as a completely admirable figure—tough but fair with his players, a coach of genius who comes up with a startling strategy to make his team a winner and sticks with it even during a rough patch, a fine family man and, of course, a man who cares deeply about his players. Perhaps he too was as wonderful a person as the film presents him, but as in Wittrock’s case that leaves Eckhart precious little to work with in fleshing out the character. The poor old-age makeup in the opening prologue (the entire story is told as a long flashback) doesn’t help, either.
The rest of the cast do what they can with the bland material Pizzo serves up. Bolger smiles a good deal, and Terrell, while stiff, cuts a handsome figure as Steinmark’s stalwart friend, while Michael Reilly Burke and Robin Tunney go through the expected motions as Steinmark’s demanding but supportive parents, looking appropriately stricken in the last reel. Juston Street, who plays his father James—the neophyte who takes over the Longhorn quarterback slot when he proves more adept at Royal’s innovative offense, thus becoming Steinmark’s partner in victory—is okay in what amounts to an example of stunt casting.
On a technical level, “My All-American” is a thoroughly professional job. Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco uses the Austin locations, including the UT stadium, well, and gives the images throughout a luster that adds to the saintly mood. (Happily, halos aren’t employed.) The sixties period detail is sometimes exaggerated, but that’s a common failing. Football fans will be pleased to know that the action on the field appears to have been recreated quite effectively. But the score by John Paesano is blustery and heavy-handed.
In the end “My All-American” strives as hard to be inspirational as Freddie Steinmark did to win football games. Unlike its subject, however, it stumbles in the attempt, opting for the most hackneyed clichés of the genre. “Is that how you want people to remember you—mediocre?” Royal asks his players in one particularly difficult halftime session. They aren’t remembered that way, of course. But this movie will be.