It was, and remains today, one of the most powerful pieces of journalism I have ever read. Fred Steinmark, the little safety on the 1969 National Champion Longhorn team, had just died. Blackie Sherrod, one of the best writers in a time of simply great sportswriters in Texas, had co-authored a book with Freddie.
Blackie wrote a column about Steinmark, and he closed it with a story about the dedication of the book. At the time, Freddie was an athlete dying young. He was in his early 20s, with a promising life ahead of him. He was a gifted athlete, whose leg had been removed from the hip because of the cancer that would kill him.
"Freddie has written a book about his experiences," wrote Blackie. "It will be published this fall. The editor noticed after Freddie was hospitalized, that he had not made a dedication of the book and he asked to whom Freddie wanted to dedicate his story.
"Freddie said to the Lord, who had been so good to him."
In trying to write a column about Thanksgiving, 2005, I have thought a lot about that. Our wonderful world in Texas athletics is juxtaposed with a really hard year in America. With a little over a month remaining in this calendar year, Longhorn athletics are at an all-time high.
It began with the Rose Bowl win on January 1 in Pasadena. Baseball, and women's track, claimed National Championships. Collectively, the athletes at The University of Texas, despite competing in fewer sports than their counterparts, finished second in the competition for the trophy honoring the most successful collegiate athletic program in the country. The Autumn of the year continued to be promising. An undefeated football team, and both the football and basketball teams ranked No. 2 in the country.
But in the real world, and reality in this case really does bite, the picture dims. Natural disasters. War. Heart-breaking tragedy. Even the cost of a tank of gas. And if we do have a chance to begin to feel good, all around us there are those who will remind us just how miserable we ought to be.
In the midst of all of this, we turn to sport as a release. We celebrate success, because it reminds us that the human spirit can conquer. In most cases, it is a game or a season. In the case of Freddie Steinmark, it was more than that.
"His friend thought it was rather a miracle, Freddie having played regularly on a national championship team with the tumor already gnawing at his leg, and had survived the amputation and returned to active life...had been able to move back into society, to tell people how he felt, to squeeze another 17 months out of precious life," wrote Sherrod when Steinmark died a year and a half after his cancer was discovered following UT's last regular season game of the National Championship season of 1969. Freddie had started every game of the season, including the famous "Game of the Century" with Arkansas.
But Sherrod continued, "Freddie didn't think it was a miracle; it was what an athlete was supposed to do and now that same fierce competition kept him hanging on for days, weeks, after the average person would have let go."
We get that in sports. We get the competitor, we get the pride, we get the joy of victory, and we even at some level feel and understand the agony of defeat.
But where in the world do we really begin to understand Steinmark's final words. How in the world, do we look beyond the pain, beyond the hurt, and be thankful on Thanksgiving Day?
I remember Dr. Gerald Mann, then pastor of Riverbend Church, saying the only way to deal with grief is to replace it with gratitude. If that's the case, then it is incumbent on us to open our eyes, and our hearts to what we have to truly be thankful for.
The origin of the day is about that. We are told that the first Thanksgiving Day was observed by pilgrims who had lost family, friends and had endured many hardships as they left their roots to begin life in a new land. The bounty they were thankful for was meager, but somehow they found power and conviction to persevere.
In many ways, there are thousands of people in America today who can relate. Driven from their homes by the forces of nature, their choice is to grieve over what was, or to be hopeful of what can be.
On Thanksgiving morning, as they have for the last eight years, Mack Brown's football team, the players and the coaches only, will gather in the team room at the Moncrief-Neuhaus football facility for a meeting. They'll hear a brief inspirational message, and then each player or coach will have a chance to stand up and tell his teammates and coaches what he is thankful for.
It is a powerful, emotional time, where the common thread of togetherness, the strength of the love of each other, bonds 100 or so guys in an incredible way. The challenge of saying what's in your heart can only be accomplished in a space of complete safety, and Thanksgiving morning in Austin, the sanctuary of the Longhorn football dressing room is the safest place on earth for the players and coaches.
Outside, toward the field of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, Freddie Steinmark's picture hangs in the tunnel by the scoreboard that bears his name.
He would be proud of the session in the room, just a few paces away, because it reminds all of us that it is important to see the good in life, to sift through tough things and tough times.
What you hope is, hard lessons teach positive futures. Today, the cancer that killed Freddie is almost completely curable, because of the research done in the years since 1970. We hope that peace comes in our world, and when it does, it will be in part because of the sacrifice of others.
In athletics at The University of Texas, we are arguably in the very best of times, and there is reason to be thankful for that, not because the Longhorns win, but because the manifestation of team success is a celebration of individual achievement, and we salute that.
More than that, however, these are young people who have not only touched each others' lives, they have touched our lives. They have given us joy, and they have allowed us to share in their fun.
They have allowed us to vicariously live in the distinct quality of a dream, to feel the celebration, to appreciate the success. They remind us every day that youth and team and character and excellence are gifts.
And for that, on this day, in this particular window of life, we have reason to be thankful.