Mostly whimsical reflections on life
Wheat Ridge High School, where Freddie Steinmark began his football legacy, is just a few miles away from Lakewood High School, where I attended.
Freddie was an underclassman when I was a senior. When our high school teams played in my senior year, Lakewood pummeled Wheat Ridge. During my high school days, Lakewood pummeled just about every team it played. (Hard as it is to believe today, I was too small back then to be issued football equipment, and there was a waiting list to be ballboy.)
After going away to college, I heard about Steinmark and the success at Wheat Ridge. Seemed improbable, but Steinmark was apparently that good.
As the new movie My All American chronicles, Steinmark was recruited by Darrell Royal to the University of Texas and played a role in helping the Longhorns win a national championship in 1969.
The undersized, but huge-hearted Steinmark proved a pivotal influence on the field and, later, off the field after he was diagnosed with bone cancer and his leg was amputated. Stenmark’s courageous battle with cancer spurred a national conversation about cancer prevention and federal investments to find a cure.
My mother saw the movie and liked it. She said it reminded her of the old days when I was in high school. It reminded me of something else.
Mike Simmons lived a block away from me in Lakewood. I can’t remember exactly when we met or how we became friends. I do remember spending long summer days at his house. Rose, his mother who whipped up Italian meals for lunch, became my second mom.
As early as elementary school, Mike was an athletic phenom. He was fast. He could outjump everyone. He was fearless. When we played backyard football, it was tackle, not touch. Mike led the neighborhood in tackles, sacks and intimidation, even though he wasn’t the biggest kid in the block.
Due to an odd school boundary adjustment, the 10-block neighborhood where Mike and I lived was carved out and we were sent to a spanking new junior high school. Almost all of our classmates would ultimately go to Wheat Ridge High School.
Playing alongside kids whom he would face in high school on the other side of the field or court, Mike was an instant star. He also was one of the most popular because of his down-to-earth personality. Mike didn’t act like a star.
Mike’s and my athletic careers only overlapped in baseball. It started in Little League and continued through high school. Mike played shortstop; I played second base. He was an All-Star; I was a sucker for a curve ball.
Mike’s high school football coach once called him a “boy in a man’s body.” It just wasn’t a big man’s body, so it was a body often badly battered.
In junior high school, I was pressed into service in the final seconds of a game as Mike’s seldom-used backup after he literally crawled off the field. He played an entire game after suffering a severe kidney bruise that required hospitalization. When I asked him how he played through the pain, Mike said he hadn’t noticed it.
The University of Colorado could hardly resist recruiting several of Lakewood High School’s seniors, including Mike. He made the crucial 4th quarter play that helped Lakewood win the Colorado big-school state championship in 1965.
During summer camp in Boulder, Mike’s tough-nosed play earned him respect and the votes as Colorado’s freshman team captain. Then came the news that Mike had a malignant tumor in his neck.
The kid who could do anything suddenly faced a foe he couldn’t conquer. The tumor metastasized quickly. He knew his days were numbered.
I saw Mike shortly before he died. His body had withered, but not his spirit. He couldn’t walk, but he still could inspire. His parting words to me were his favorite phrase: “Hang tough.”
Mike never took the field as a varsity Colorado Golden Buffalo. If he had, they might have made a movie about him. Taking nothing away from Freddie Steinmark, Mike Simmons was that good.
In honor of Mike, CU created the “Hang Tough Award,” which is still given annually to a football player who deals with severe adversity.
I suspect Mike and Freddie might have become good friends – before and after their respective diagnoses. They had the infectious capacity to see a bright future through dark clouds. They had the ability to make those around them better players – and better people.
When I watch My All American, I will see Freddie Steinmark, but I will think about Mike Simmons – and remember to keep hanging tough.
[Thanks to classmate Jeanne Creighton Redmond for securing pictures of Mike from our 1965 yearbook, the Lahian.]