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August 28, 2011

UT's Brian's Song: Freddie Steinmark

Jim Dent, author of the New York Times best-seller "The Junction Boys," has written a book about the incredible story of Longhorn football player Freddie Steinmark.

Steinmark played the entire 1969 regular season with cancer in his leg and ultimately had the leg amputated before the Cotton Bowl in UT's national championship season. It is Texas' version of Brian's Song. Here is an excerpt from the book.

By Jim Dent

I recently asked former Texas rover man Mike Campbell if I had treated Freddie

Steinmark a little too saintly in my book, Courage Beyond The Game: The Freddie Steinmark


"No,'' Campbell said flatly. "Freddie was a saint long before you wrote the book.''

Campbell should know. He started on the same defense with Steinmark during the 1969

national championship season, and they were close friends.

Steinmark remains one of the most revered and loved players in the long history of Texas

football. During a recent interview with the Longhorn Network, Bob McKay's eyes filled with

tears as he talked about the late Steinmark. Few of his friends have ever seen McKay turn

sentimental about anyone. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, McKay was known as "Big Un.''One of

college football's offensive tackles in the late 1960s, McKay made first team All-American in

1969 when the Longhorns powered the ball down the field in the wishbone offense. ere He Here

was a roughneck from the tiny West Texas town of Crane, a man who cleared huge holes for the

Texas running backs.

He once said of Steinmark, "most of us were always misbehaving. Freddie was the

perfect role model. It just seems impossible that he was the one who got the cancer.''

Tom Campbell, the All-Southwest Conference cornerback and brother of Mike, once

compared Steinmark to Notre Dame legend George Gipp, who died during his senior season and

is still considered by some to be the greatest all-around player in the history of college football.

His death inspired the "Win one for the Gipper '' speech by coach Knute Rockne during halftime

of the 1927 Army game.

"Freddie," Campbell said, "was George Gipp without all of the hype.''

It is little wonder that the University of Texas has preserved the memory of Freddie

Steinmark, the scrappy, 150-pound safety who started in nineteen straight winning games and

led the Southwest Conference in interceptions with five in 1968.

Former coach Darrell Royal encouraged Mack Brown to keep the Freddie fires burning.

That is why two large photos of Steinmark adorn the walls of the tunnel leading to the field. Just

minutes before kickoff, every Texas players touches Freddie with the Longhorn salute. In effect,

they are carrying part of Freddie into battle. It is one of the university's most respected traditions.

Mack Brown wrote in the foreword to Courage Beyond The Game, "In his short time at

Texas, Freddie became a hero. Not necessarily for what he did, although he was a fine player,

but for who he was."

Coming out of high school and enrolling at The University of Texas in the fall of 1967,

Steinmark provided an underdog story that touched every heart. Not a single big-time football

program recruited the feisty scatback in spite of his selection for the Denver Post's Golden

Helmet Award as the best high school scholar/football player in Colorado. That was before

Coach Darrell Royal studied film of the diminutive Steinmark and decided to take a chance.

Royal dispatched Assistant Coach Fred Akers on a fact-finding mission to Steinmark's

hometown of Wheat Ridge, Colorado. Akers knocked on the door, and a slight youngster greeted

him with a big smile. Akers actually thought it was Steinmark's younger brother, Sammy, six

years his junior.

On his recruiting trip to Austin, Steinmark wore high-heeled cowboy boots, hoping he

would look taller. He stood 5 feet, 9 inches and weighed 150 pounds.

When he sat down on the other side of Royal's long oaken desk, he could barely believe

what the coach said.

"Son, let me tell you something very interesting," Royal said. "I didn't get to the

University of Oklahoma until I was 25 years old because of the war. I was just about your size. I

quarterbacked the Oklahoma Sooners to a national championship one year. On defense, I broke

the record for interceptions. I don't care how big you are."

That day, Steinmark committed to UT and made a vow to himself that he would start

every game. He did not care how high the odds were stacked. When Steinmark arrived for fall

practice, sophomore rover Mike Campbell mistook him for a team manager.

"The kid looked like he was 15 years old," Campbell recalled.

That was before Steinmark was issued a uniform and began knocking freshman

teammates all over the field.

Playing for the Yearlings (the freshman team's mascot) during an unbeaten five-game

schedule, Steinmark led the Southwest Conference (SWC) in interceptions with four. During a

45-0 victory over Texas A&M University in the season finale, Steinmark returned a punt 76

yards for a touchdown.

Everything was clicking for the young man with the warm smile and bright, sparkling

eyes. He strolled the campus with his blonde-haired, blue-eyed girlfriend, Linda Wheeler, whom

he had dated since the eighth grade. Freddie was making good grades, attending Catholic mass

on a regular basis, and living the ideal life.

On the first day of preseason drills in 1968, Steinmark replaced Scooter Monzingo at

safety on the varsity defense. It was rare when Royal opened the season with a sophomore in the

starting lineup, but Steinmark, with his speed and agility, offered the perfect antidote to some of

the country's best passing attacks, which were popping up all over the SWC.

The Longhorns began the 1968 season raggedly, tying Houston and losing to a

mediocre Texas Tech team. But with James Street replacing Bill Bradley at quarterback, the

wishbone offense began to roll in the third game against Oklahoma State. The Longhorns won

eight straight games en route to 18-wheeling Tennessee 36-13 in the Cotton Bowl, finishing the

season as the third-ranked team in the national Associated Press (AP) poll.

The start of the 1969 season generated enormous hope. America's sporting press

trumpeted Texas as a possible national champion, and the ABC television network persuaded

Texas and Arkansas to move their mid-October game to December 6 with the prospect of

playing for the collegiate title on national TV.

Steinmark was named to the preseason All-SWC team. But he had developed a limp,

and the Texas coaches were keeping an eye on him. The hitch in Steinmark's gait had first been

spotted that summer by his boss at a car dealership in Denver. Then his dad, Fred Steinmark,

noticed him running unevenly during conditioning sprints.

In the early part of the season, Steinmark tried to hide his pain. Finally, Akers insisted

that he undergo treatment from team trainer Frank Medina. He initially diagnosed the injury as a

charley horse that would heal in time. Steinmark limped his way through the season, intercepting

only one pass.

Both Arkansas and Texas rolled through the season with nine straight wins. The

Horns and Hogs were ranked 1 and 2, respectively, in the AP Top 20 poll for the "Big Shootout''

in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Steinmark was limping so badly in pregame warmups that his friend,

Bill Zapalac, began to call him "Ratso,'' the gimpy, third-rate conman played by Dustin

Hoffman in "Midnight Cowboy.''

The Texas coaches considered benching Steinmark before recognizing the extent of

his contributions during the 18-game winning streak. In spite of his limp, Steinmark remained

a savvy coverage man, never letting a receiver past him. Plus, when tackling, he packed a

sledgehammer wallop.

December 6, 1969, was cold and drizzly in Fayetteville. Almost every seat in

Razorback Stadium was filled more than an hour before kickoff, and President Richard Nixon

was in attendance.

Steinmark was limping badly.

Arkansas built a 14-0 lead through three quarters. But two Texas miracles were

coming: Street opened the fourth quarter by splitting the Arkansas defense and sprinting 42

yards for a touchdown. He also scored the two-point conversion. With 6 minutes and 32 seconds

left to play, he completed a 43-yard pass to Randy Peschel on fourth down to set up another

touchdown. Jim Bertelsen's 1-yard touchdown run and Happy Feller's extra-point kick made it


That deficit was almost erased on Arkansas' next possession. The Hogs targeted

Steinmark on a post route by Chuck Dicus. The little safety showed a huge amount of gumption,

grabbing the All-America wide receiver as he ran past him. The holding penalty moved the Hogs

to the 7-yard line?but they did not score. Three plays later, Steinmark's gamble paid off as

UT's Danny Lester intercepted quarterback Bill Montgomery at the goal line, killing the scoring


At the final gun, the pain finally died in Steinmark's leg. Numbed by the excitement

and the adrenaline, he danced with his teammates along the sideline. Then he took off running at

full speed for the dressing room. When he came upon teammate Steve Worster, he asked, "Why

are you crying?"

"No, Freddie," Worster replied. "Why are you crying?"

Two days later, Steinmark finally confessed his pain to Royal. The coach sent him

for X-rays, and a few hours later, Steinmark learned he might have a tumor at the tip of his left

thighbone. He was flown to Houston's M.D. Anderson Hospital, and a biopsy was scheduled.

Royal caught the next flight back from New York, where his team was receiving the MacArthur

Trophy as the national champion. He paced the hospital's hallways, repeating the same phrase. "I

can't believe this is happening.''

The biopsy revealed that Steinmark had played most of the season with almost an

inch of his femur devoured by cancer. The leg was amputated at the hip. But Steinmark was

not about to be beaten by osteosarcoma, a malignant bone tumor. He was up and walking on

crutches within a few days, and soon announced that he would stand on the sideline during the

Longhorns' Cotton Bowl matchup with Notre Dame.

Nineteen days after the operation, he crutched down the long Cotton Bowl tunnel to

a standing ovation. He saw his team rally in the fourth quarter once more to defeat the Fighting

Irish 21-17.

Twelve days later, he walked across the stage on a shiny new prosthetic to receive his

letter jacket from Royal. There was not a dry eye among the 6,000 fans at the Austin Municipal


Steinmark's life in the next few months became a whirlwind of change. One night at

a restaurant, he broke up with Linda, telling her: "Linda, I might not make it. You, on the other

hand, have a long life ahead of you. We are going to live two different lives."

He moved into the Catholic rectory on the east side of town. He drove his first car, a

brand-new blue Grand Prix. He learned to play golf and water ski on one leg, visited Nixon in

the White House, grew his hair out, and even started drinking beer for the first time.

By the fall, he was missing Linda so badly that he asked her to come back. They were walking

across campus one day when Freddie spit blood on the ground. Linda rushed him to the hospital,

and soon he was undergoing painful chemotherapy treatments for lung cancer. With his hair

falling out, Steinmark asked his friend, Texas offensive tackle Bobby Wuensch, to shave

his head in front of the entire team as a form of "hazing'' for becoming a freshman coach.

Steinmark, who had been named a coach by Royal, did not want the team to know his condition

was deteriorating.

Over the Christmas holidays, Freddie and Linda went to see "Love Story,'' the movie

about two Harvard students, Jennifer Cavalleri (played by actress Ali MacGraw) and Oliver

Barrett IV (Ryan O'Neal). In the movie, Oliver marries Jenny, and she is soon stricken with

deadly leukemia.

Before seeing "Love Story,'' Freddie and Linda knew nothing about the storyline. Thus,

they were rendered speechless at the end. Standing outside in the falling snow, in Denver, a

tearful Freddie said, "We just watched our future.''

A few days later, in spite of his bleak condition, Freddie proposed marriage. Rings were

purchased and a date of May 23, 1971, set for the wedding. Linda sewed her own dress, and

Freddie bought a white Italian suit for the wedding. Invitations went out.

But the wedding was called off: On May 23, Freddie was beginning to slip in and out of a coma.

He died on June 6, 1971, and the funeral held in Denver drew the largest crowd in the history of

the state.

The glorious life of Freddie Steinmark spanned 22 years, five months and nine days. On

the morning he died, he was a national symbol for courage. Former trainer Spanky Stephens

recalled, "Freddie gave us all a roadmap for life.''

NOTE: Courage Beyond The Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story is now available at all bookstores and online at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

Jim Dent will be signing books at every home game, including Texas-OU. Stay tuned for times and places.

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