WASHINGTON — It was dubbed college football’s “Game of the Century.” On Dec. 6 1969, the Texas Longhorns overcame a 14-0 fourth-quarter deficit to stage a 15-14 comeback over the Arkansas Razorbacks, accepting a plaque from President Richard Nixon en route to a National Championship.
But Texas safety Freddie Steinmark limped during the game, and two days later, visited a doctor with pain in his left thigh. A biopsy revealed a bone tumor, requiring an urgent amputation of his leg and a beginning a 17-month battle with a deadly disease that sparked a national conversation on cancer.
“I suspect that there is a great sadness everywhere in the country today among sports lovers,” broadcast legend Howard Cosell announced upon Steinmark’s death. “I suspect too that most of you remember the name Freddie Steinmark. … He died at the age of 22, and I guess in the years to come, the way things go, Freddie Steinmark will be forgotten, except by the people who knew him.”
Now, those “people who knew him” have penned a book to make sure he’s never forgotten.
“His mother felt very confident that we needed to tell Freddie’s whole story,” Yousse tells WTOP. “We did research for a couple of years and we were consulting with the movie producers. In actual writing the book, it took us about three months, but we worked a lot of 20-hour days and we had a lot of help from people helping us with research and editing. We never could have done it that fast, but we wanted the book to come out when the movie came out so that they’d feed off each other.”
The film (in theaters now) stars Finn Wittrock (“Unbroken”) as Steinmark, Aaron Eckhart (“The Dark Knight”) as Coach Darrell Royal and Robin Tunney (“Vertical Limit”) as Steinmark’s mother Gloria. Written and directed by Angelo Pizzo, writer of such sports flicks as “Hoosiers” (1986) and “Rudy” (1993), adapted the film from a separate book by Jim Dent and has taken a few knocks for the film’s sentimental portrait. Still, the true story is one to be experienced, idolized and remembered.
“It’s very emotional. It’s hard to get everything just right. You can’t do that in a two-hour movie, but it gets you (emotionally),” Yousse says. “(Pizzo) didn’t have the benefit of ever knowing Freddie. … It was important to them to have our input, particularly mine because I knew Freddie so well.”
In fact, Yousse knew Steinmark since they were eight years old.
“We were friends and teammates all through childhood and high school in Wheat Ridge, Colorado,” Yousse says. “He dreamed of playing football for Notre Dame because he was a strong Catholic, but he was undersized. … All the major Division I schools said you’re too small, except Darrell Royal … who looked at Freddie and didn’t see his size. … He was 150 pounds of heart.”
While Yousse personally knew Steinmark, co-author Cryan met Steinmark’s younger brother, Sammy Steinmark, who was coaching football at the Air Force Academy.
“(We) pooled our resources to make what we felt was a real magical story in this book,” Cryan says.
While the book covers the “Game of the Century,” it also digs deeper into Steinmark’s family life, including his father’s reaction to his son’s most pivotal play, which ironically was a penalty. With the game on the line, Steinmark drew an intentional pass interference that saved a certain touchdown and allowed a Texas teammate to nab an interception two plays later in the red zone.
“That game was the first time Freddie’s father had ever seen him play on television,” Yousse says. “He was at home in Denver, Colorado with the family watching. When he saw the penalty, he just couldn’t believe what had happened, but he also realized that Freddie had probably just saved the game.”
Watching games in 1969 was a communal national experience, just months after the Moon Landing.
“There was unrest everywhere,” Yousse says. “The Vietnam War was going. And that’s one of the reasons Freddie became such an important figure to the public. He was somebody they could attach themselves to and be emotionally involved in and care about, and it wasn’t all of the negative stuff.”
Everyone from Bob Hope to President Nixon reached out to comfort the Steinmark family.
“Imagine, you are part of what becomes the national championship team. You reach that pinnacle you’ve aspired to your whole life, then two days after that game, you are told you might have cancer and six days after that game, you lose your leg in an amputation,” Cryan says. “On Dec. 1, Nixon had instituted the first draft lottery in over 20 years. On Dec. 6, Nixon is ten rows up on the 50 yard line in the stadium. And then six days after that, Nixon calls you in your hotel room and says, ‘Are you OK, pal?’ … Then Nixon brought him to the White House and made him a spokesperson. … That’s how he became such a lightning rod and sparked a conversation about cancer that really hadn’t been had.”
At Steinmark’s funeral, President Nixon’s personal representative pulled Steinmark’s mother aside and asked if there was anything the White House could do to help her grieving process.
“She said, ‘Yes. Tell him to fight cancer like he fights all these other wars,'” Yousse says.
So in 1971, Nixon signed the National Cancer Act into law, beginning the nation’s “War on Cancer.”
The same year, James Caan (“The Godfather”) and Billy Dee Williams (“Empire Strikes Back”) starred in the TV movie “Brian’s Song” (1971), a tear-jerker about Gale Sayers’ friendship with cancer-stricken teammate Brian Piccolo, who became pen pals with Steinmark before both passed away.
“Brian watched the Arkansas game and a few weeks after that, he wrote Freddie a letter and said, ‘I watched the game on TV’ and basically said, ‘I more than anyone know how you feel right now. The thing is, what happens to us now, is up to God,'” Yousse says. “That’s one of the reasons a movie about Freddie wasn’t made immediately because ‘Brian’s Song’ came out.”
Now, Steinmark is finally getting his cinematic due, though his legacy has long echoed off screen.
“Freddie is an icon at the University of Texas,” Cryan says. “Freddie is the guy who the scoreboard at the University of Texas is named for and was recently rededicated. When the ball players go out on the field, they tap Freddie’s plaque at the base of the scoreboard as they go through the tunnel.”
Yes, Steinmark may have never attended his childhood dream school Notre Dame like Pizzo’s Rudy, but he remains the Texas equivalent of Fighting Irish tapping the sign: “Play Like a Champion Today.”
The key word is “today.”
“Freddie’s legacy is that everything you do in life matters. He never wasted time. He was always busy doing something, reading, studying, working out,” Yousse says. “He was a very selfless, humble guy.”
Listen to the full interview below:
WTOP's Jason Fraley interviews Bower Yousee and Thomas Cryan