Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story
By Jim Dent
(Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99 hardback; $12.99 Kindle)
In my one and only fall semester as a student at the University of Texas at Austin, I went to a couple of football games and watched Freddie Steinmark play safety for the Longhorns. I sat high up in the cheap seats and gazed down upon players who appeared to be about two inches tall. Football has long been a big deal in the Lone Star State.
Steinmark was good, very good, and he had a great reputation for hustling, hitting and knocking down opponents’ passes.
However, several other members of the Longhorns team also were getting good press. And the Horns were striving to recapture a national title. So, like many other fans, I didn’t focus much on one player. I was more into watching the overall X’s and O’s and trying, mentally, to help drive the pigskin down the field.
Unknown to us all, tragedy would strike down Freddie Steinmark in just a few weeks. And, over the next two years and beyond, he would become a nationwide symbol of personal courage and inspiration.
When Steinmark moved to Austin in 1967, he was fiercely determined to play football for the University of Texas Longhorns. He was fresh out of high school in Wheat Ridge, Colo., and he weighed just 150 pounds. Many observers and coaches initially considered him too small for big-time college football.
But, as author Jim Dent points out in his well-written and poignant new sports biography, Courage Beyond the Game, Steinmark’s small stature had not stopped him from being a standout in every major high school sport. Off the field, he had been an academic leader, as well.
At UT-Austin, his determination and drive quickly convinced many that he might succeed after all, both in the difficult field of chemical engineering and as a player for one of America’s top gridiron teams.
Steinmark was “the golden boy from the moment he walked onto the campus,” writes Dent, whose five previous books include a New York Times best-seller, The Junction Boys.
Dent quotes one of Steinmark’s teammates, wide receiver Cotton Spreyer, as stating: “No one was better than Freddie. He could run like a deer and he was quick.”
Darrell Royal, UT’s head football coach at the time, once praised Steinmark by calling him “as focused a young man as I’ve ever seen in my life.”
But a dark time soon — too soon — was coming, and Dent’s book smoothly moves beyond the traditional paeans of sports biography. It becomes a cautionary tale about placing too much trust and faith in the power of physical toughness.
Dent notes: “In the 1960s, a code existed that said players worth their salt did not complain about pain. You were expected to play through the bleeding, bumps, and bruises even if they did not subside in a reasonable time. Each afternoon, Darrell Royal and his assistants walked through the training room for the purpose of counting heads and identifying the players they considered ‘malingerers.’”
Steinmark had arrived at UT with a physical-toughness reputation that stretched back to early childhood. “In the midget leagues,” Dent reports, “he played an entire quarter with a broken arm. In high school, he played three quarters over two games with a broken leg. As a senior, he decided against seeking medical attention when he broke his right hand.”
The ethos of toughness was well embedded in Freddie Steinmark’s personality and values.
In his first season, Steinmark became a starting safety on UT’s freshman team. By the next fall, he was the Longhorns’ pass defense captain and co-leading the Southwest Conference in pass interceptions. He continued making top grades in his classes, and he continued dating his high school sweetheart, who now was attending UT, as well.
He was “golden,” indeed. Prominent sportswriters now were labeling him one of America’s best and brightest football players.
His world suddenly spun a different way his junior year, while the 1969 Longhorns fought to regain college football’s top national ranking. He developed a pain that grew to feel “like a hot poker had been stuck into his left thighbone just above the knee.” Steinmark now limped in workouts and games but did his best to hide it. He also refused to tell his trainers and coaches for fear he would be pulled as a starter.
Dent details how Steinmark continued the excruciating ruse all season until “the Game of the Century,” UT versus Arkansas, in Fayetteville, with President Nixon in the stands and the national championship on the line. The game also celebrated the 100th anniversary of college football.
In the great game’s last quarter, the worsening pain finally left Steinmark unable to cover pass receivers. Coach Darrell Royal sent in a substitute, and Texas held on to win 15-14.
What happened next to Freddie Steinmark is movingly described in Jim Dent’s bittersweet and engaging book. Bone cancer — osteogenic sarcoma — was dicovered, and it took the young man’s leg but not his spirit. For the next year and a half, Freddie Steinmark was able to bounce around full of life on crutches, becoming Dent says, both an inspiration to other cancer patients and “a national symbol of courage” in the game of life.
Mack Brown, the Texas Longhorns’ current head coach, was a high school football player the last year Steinmark played. He watched “the Game of the Century” and the scrappy junior safety on TV. He never met the junior safety, but he hasn’t forgotten that Steinmark had his leg amputated, then showed up on the UT sidelines just three weeks later, on crutches, to watch Texas play Notre Dame in the Coton Bowl.
“In recognition of that courage,” Brown states in the foreword to Dent’s book, “to this day we have the players touch a picture of Freddie with the Longhorn salute before they go down the ramp to the field. Armed with the pride of the All-Americans, and in honor of the courage of Freddie, we ask them to go out and play as hard as they can.”
— Si Dunn