“My All-American” is an earnest, ultimately heart-tugging sports drama. Nothing fancy. Nothing many moviegoers won’t see coming from a football field away. That’s especially true if they’re familiar with the true story the film is based upon.
In 1969, University of Texas Longhorns safety Freddie Steinmark helped his team reach the Cotton Bowl, where the Longhorns defeated Notre Dame. Tragically, Steinmark didn’t join his teammates in the game he’d worked so long and hard to get the Longhorns to.
“My All American” is mostly about what happens before the Cotton Bowl game, with a major focus on Steinmark’s college football years at UT in Austin. The film introduces him as a determined kid who grew up playing football under the encouraging guidance of his father.
Finn Wittrock (“American Horror Story”) plays Steinmark, the optimistic, devoutly Catholic young man who dreams of winning a football scholarship to Notre Dame. But Steinmark has a big disadvantage in college as well as pro football. He’s a little guy.
Despite his size, Steinmark is a great competitor and player for his Wheat Ridge High School football team in suburban Denver. He also works constantly with dad (Michael Reilly Burke), engaging in grueling training sessions beyond the school grounds.
“My All-American,” written and directed by Angelo Pizzo (“Hoosiers,” “Rudy”) and based on the book “Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story,” scores underdog points by exploiting Steinmark’s unlikely entry into college football. The whole family, including Steinmark’s mom, Gloria, (Robin Tunney) experiences suspense and disappointment around the telephone on the wall in the family kitchen.
The family’s hopes rise when University of Texas coach Darrell Royal requests a campus visit by Steinmark and his fellow Wheat Ridge High School teammate Bobby Mitchell (Rett Terrell).
Aaron Eckhart, the biggest name in “My All-American” cast, co-stars as Coach Royal. The age makeup Eckhart first appears in on screen is disconcerting, but once the film returns to the late 1960s, Eckhart comfortably assumes the role of a driven but caring coach who’s genuinely fond of Steinmark. Eckhart and Wittrock, playing coach and mentor, strike up an on-screen connection.
“My All-American” features lots of football action, cheering crowds and painfully clichéd announcer scenes. Shot entirely in Texas, the film’s locations include the UT campus in Austin, the Alamodome in San Antonio and The Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
The script plays like a by-the-book underdog sports tale until Steinmark begins experiencing pain in his left thighbone.
Fiercely devoted to the game as he is, he won’t quit or complain. What comes next takes “My All-American” in a poignant direction, the impact of which is aided by Eckhart’s and Wittrock’s thoroughly pro performances.
Otherwise, this drama would be much less than it turns out to be.