Aaron Eckhart remembers watching Al Pacino film his big locker room speech at the end of Oliver Stone’s football saga “Any Given Sunday.” He had to watch it many times. “He just got better and better,” he recalls. Over 15 years later and Eckhart is playing his own head coach in “My All American,” playing University of Texas Austin legend Darrell Royal. But the film, Eckhart likes pointing out, is not about Royal. It’s about Freddie Steinmark (Finn Wittrock), a star athlete who, halfway through his college football stint, contracted bone cancer and died.
Playing a coach must be a challenge. Doubly so if you’re playing a college football legend.
I got to Austin. I was eating in a nice steakhouse. I put the first bit of steak in my mouth and I looked up, and there’s an oil painting of Coach Royal right over my head. I was like, “Are you kidding me? An oil painting? Maybe a picture of him, but an oil painting? This guy means something.” I was talking to everyone I could, and I kept getting that look of like, “Dude, you ain’t half the man he is. You don’t have a prayer.” [Laughs]
Texas is tough, as is Texas football.
Texas football is tough. The South is tough. I did a movie in Baton Rouge, and I basically lived on LSU campus. You’d go to a coffeeshop and there were soccer moms debating over whether they should replace the quarterback or not. These people are invested in it. So I was a little bit nervous. You’ve got the accent, you’ve got the mannerisms, and you’ve got the former players either approving or disapproving of you interpretation.
Luckily the movie’s not entirely about Darrell Royal.
The movie’s about Freddie Steinmark. It’s about what happened in the ’60s and the advances in medical care then versus what they have today — how a kid could get bone cancer and play through it. These guys were playing through pain; that was the edict. You were on the field unless your leg was broken. It’s different today, with the concussion protocol. There’s more attention paid to that. In those days there weren’t any. How many times do you hear about players who lie to their coaches, lie to the medical staff, because they want to stay in the game. A doctor can only do so much. Today they demand that you get off the field. In those days if the guy said, “I’m good, coach,” they were like, “OK.” It was part of proving yourself as a man. It was macho. What could be more macho than football? But Freddie had a real problem.