Angelo Pizzo makes his directing debut on “My All-American,” a movie about legendary 1960s University of Texas football star Freddie Steinmark that opens Friday, but he’s no stranger to the inspirational sports drama.
The Indiana native wrote and produced two of the most beloved and critically praised sports movies ever, “Hoosiers” and “Rudy.” (The former even earned two Oscar nominations and was selected for the National Film Registry.)
“Directing was different than anything I’ve done before in my career, and it was the best,” Pizzo, who is in his 60s, told TheWrap.
Stepping behind the camera was also less of a challenge than he expected.
“Don’t get me wrong, directing is hard, and challenging on every front. But I was very well-prepared and ready,” he said, sounding a lot like Gene Hackman did as the fundamentally sound basketball coach in “Hoosiers.”
Over his decades-long career, Pizzo had attended USC Film School, pulled stints at Warner Bros. Television and Time-Life Films and worked as second-unit director on both “Hoosiers” and “Rudy” — which were directed by Pizzo’s former Indiana University frat brother David Anspaugh. (Anspaugh also directed another Pizzo script, 2005’s soccer saga “The Game of Their Lives.”)
Taking on “My All-American” was tricky because Steinmark (played by “American Horror Story” actor Finn Wittrock) is a legend in football-crazed Texas. Even making the team at UT was an achievement for the 154-pound safety (photo left) who had far more heart than raw talent.
But Steinmark and his teammates were on top of the world when the No. 1 Longhorns defeated No. 2 Arkansas by a point in the 1969 “Game of the Century” in front of President Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, George H.W. Bush and the largest TV audience in history at that time.
Steinmark’s left leg had bothered him throughout the game, and when he had it checked out two days later a bone tumor was found just below his left knee. A little more than a week later, the leg was amputated.
Nonetheless, Steinmark stood on the sideline with his team as Texas defeated Notre Dame in the 1970 Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day. His fight against cancer inspired Congress to write the National Cancer Act of 1971 and Nixon to sign it into law.
Steinmark died in 1971 at age 22. The scoreboard at the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium was dedicated to Steinmark’s memory at a pregame ceremony in 1972 and Longhorn players today still touch a plaque honoring him as they take the field (photo left).
While “Hoosiers” and “Rudy” were both based on fact, Pizzo said “My All-American” hews more closely to the truth than any of his earlier films.
“That was key to earning the backing of Ben Brigham, who financed the movie, and the Steinmark family, which had resisted overtures for nearly 40 years, fearing the story would get Hollywood-ized,” said Pizzo, who based his script on a book by Jim Dent, “Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story.”
Steinmark’s family and the Longhorn inner circle seemed happy with the finished film, Pizzo reported: “Edith Royal (the coach’s widow) has watched it several times.”
If Pizzo has his way, though, “My All American” will be his last sports movie for awhile. He is working on three projects, none of which involve athletics. “I’m very anxious to write something that doesn’t have a ball in it,” he said.
“My All-American” was produced by Paul Schiff and is presented by Clarius Entertainment and Anthem Ventures. It will be in 1,565 theaters.
18 Dramatic Championship Sports Movie Moments: From 'Rocky' to 'Remember the Titans' (Photos)
"The Pride of the Yankees" (1942)
This beautifully dramatized moment of sports history, as wonderfully monologued by Gary Cooper, helped to immortalize the already infamous "Luckiest man" speech by Lou Gehrig.
In the ultimate underdog story, newcomer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) gets a shot at the world heavyweight title against champ Apollo Creed. Rocky proves he has the goods, going the entire 15 rounds against Creed, but loses in a split decision. Rocky would get a rematch though and win the title in “Rocky II”.
"Breaking Away" (1979)
One of the most inspiring underdog stories ever made, the Little 500 bicycle race in Bloomington, Indiana, is a local classic as made famous by this film. In the film's closing race scene, the locals -- dressed in plain white T-shirts with their nickname the "Cutters" -- upset the richer college students with more expensive bikes and uniforms, riding across the finish line in pure glory.
“Chariots of Fire” (1981)
Two Englishmen push each other to be the best sprinter at the 1924 Olympics. While they won gold on the big screen’s racetrack, “Chariots of Fire” would go on to win Oscar gold for best picture.
“The Natural” (1984)
Robert Redford plays middle-age rookie Roy Hobbs in “The Natural.” Hobbs leads his team to a championship on his final at-bat when he launches the most famous home run in movie history. Thus proving the unspoken rule in baseball: If you break the lights you win the game.
Another Indiana classic in what is widely considered one of the greatest sports movies of all time, “Hoosiers” follows a small town high school basketball team as they make it all the way to the state finals. They play a bigger and more athletic team in the finals, but with a last second shot pull off the surprise victory.
“Major League” (1989)
Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger lead an outfit of misfit Cleveland Indians from last place to a shot at the league pennant against the powerhouse Yankees. Even though the film is a comedy, the final game plays out in dramatic fashion.
“A League of Their Own” (1992)
“A League of Their Own” proved that girls can play baseball, and ends in a play at the plate that determines the championship. Geena Davis’ Rockford Peaches may lose that final game, but as Tom Hanks taught us, “there is no crying in baseball!”
Steve James’ revolutionary documentary follows inner-city Chicago kids William Gates and Arthur Agee throughout their high-school basketball careers. The film culminates in both striving to reach the finals of their city wide championship tournament.
“Remember the Titans” (2001)
Based on the true story of Virginia’s first integrated high school football team (led by coach Denzel Washington), the Titans not only change the views of an entire town, but they go undefeated on their way to a thrilling state championship against an all-white team.
“Friday Night Lights” (2004)
The film that spawned the critically acclaimed TV series (which in turn may spawn a film of its own) is memorable in that its featured team doesn’t win the championship. The Permian Panthers mount a great comeback, but come up one yard short of the state title.
In perhaps one of the greatest upsets in sports history, a team of U.S. college hockey players defeated the Soviet Union, the three-time defending gold medal winner and best team in the world, during the Cold War.
Okay, okay. This is really a parody of sports movies. But for all its send-ups of underdog sports movie formulas, it also embraces them full-heartedly during the gripping championship showdown between the Average Joes and Globo Gym.
“The Fighter” (2010) David O. Russell‘s Oscar-winning picture depicted boxer Mickey Ward’s (Mark Wahlberg) climb up the ranks from middling contender to a shot at the title. The final fight shows the grit and heart that it took for Ward to win the belt.
The best sports documentaries are as riveting as their scripted counterparts, putting viewers right in the action as if they are watching it unfold live. "Senna" is one of the finest examples, using primarily archival footage with no narration and few interviews to show the bitter Formula 1 rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost that led to the 1989 and 1990 championships being decided in controversial fashion at Japan's famed Suzuka Circuit.
"Survive and Advance" (2013)
ESPN's "30 for 30" series included a look at arguably the most famous championship run in college basketball history. In 1983, Jimmy Valvano led the North Carolina State Wolfpack on a streak of nine consecutive overtime or one-point wins, culminating in a last-second basket to win the championship over top-ranked Houston. In this documentary, even though the outcome is known, every game's heart-stopping drama is recreated perfectly.
The power and hypnotic beauty of this famous running scene from "Creed" as directed by Ryan Coogler is immense. Michael B. Jordan captures the inspiring training run from the original "Rocky" with a modern spirit. You can feel the emotion of the moment so strongly and can't help but root for him.
"Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies" (2017)
Another ESPN documentary that puts you right in the moment. Narrated by Lakers fan Ice Cube and Celtics fan Donnie Wahlberg, this five-hour doc covers the most famous championship rivalry in sports, which peaked with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 80s. The tension hits its peak with Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals, in which Bird infamously missed a game-tying three-point shot.
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Whether it’s the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, TheWrap recaps the biggest moments in these sports classics