Based on the meteoric yet short-lived career of college football player Freddie Steinmark, My All American, on the surface at least, seems like your standard sports drama. It has the underdog-triumphing-against-all-odds dramatic arc that writer-director Angelo Pizzo previously traversed with Hoosiers and Rudy, both of which he scripted. Here, Steinmark (Finn Wittrock) fights an uphill battle against assumptions about his football-playing abilities based on his diminutive height to become a star defenseman for the University of Texas’s Longhorns team during their triumphant 1969 season. And the film is chock-full of the kind of shamelessly corny yet wholly sincere moments of rah-rah heroism that often characterize these types of films.
But there’s something more to the film than just sports-drama clichés, and a clue to what that is lies in its subtle emphasis on Steinmark’s Christian background. At least as Pizzo writes him and Wittrock plays him, Steinmark is chaste as all get out: endlessly devoted to his family, teammates, and friends (including his girlfriend, Linda Wheeler, played by Sarah Bolger); never seen doping or drinking even in the more permissive environment of college in the late 1960s; always saying his evening prayers. Indeed, he’s the iconic squeaky-clean all-American boy, and that’s how the film treats him: as a walking icon.
Steinmark is a proverbial life force, inspiring his teammates around him with his unwavering devotion to the Longhorns. At one point, Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart), Steinmark’s coach, tells him after an impromptu locker-room chat that he feels so much better about things after talking to him. That’s par for the course with the rest of his teammates, none of whom dare to speak ill against him, and who rally around him when he discovers, after their conference-championship victory against Arkansas, that he has a malignant tumor in his leg and will no longer be able to play football.
One could possibly find some perverse fascination in seeing a sports biopic about such a resolutely flat central character: no dark nights of the soul, no seismic shifts in attitude, just pure, virtuous essence all the way to his untimely end. Those who get onto the film’s feel-good wavelength may well brush off the kinds of questions others might wonder about—such as whether Steinmark’s insistence on playing through the persistent pain in his left leg was, in the end, more foolish than heroically selfless. Such nuances are ultimately negated by the film’s relentless canonization of its subject, punctuated by a choir accompanying Steinmark’s ostensibly triumphant spectatorial appearance at the Cotton Bowl and a final shot that pans from the University of Texas’s Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium up to the sky, giving Steinmark and the film a literally heavenly send-off.