“You’re 5 foot nothin’, 100 and nothin’, and you have nearly a speck of athletic ability. And you hung in there with the best college football team in the land for 2 years. And you’re getting a degree from the University of Notre Dame. In this life, you don’t have to prove nothin’ to nobody but yourself.”
–Fortune (as played by Charles S. Dutton) in “Rudy.”
In twenty seven seconds, Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger became the most famous graduate of the University of Notre Dame. (Sorry, Joe Montana.)
Rudy was born in 1948, the third of 14 children. He always dreamed of playing football at Notre Dame, but his school grades were only average–much like his athletic ability. So after graduating from high school, he served in the Navy and worked at a power plant. But when an industrial accident killed his best friend at the plant, Ruettiger was finally galvanized into pursuing his dream–a pursuit that is the basis of the film, Rudy.
At the age of 23, Ruettiger won admittance to Holy Cross Junior College in South Bend. While attending school he supported himself by working as a groundskeeper at Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne Stadium. For three semesters, Rudy sought admission to Notre Dame as a transfer student, but each time he was rejected. Finally, after tests revealed that he had a mild case of dyslexia, Rudy overcame his disability, passed his tests, and was accepted into the university.
Ruettiger again beat the odds and won a spot as a practice player on the scout team, against which the varsity team ran its plays. Though he was not allowed to suit up for actual games, he was finally part of the team. His goal, however, was to play with the Fighting Irish in a real game.
Over the next two years, Rudy won the respect of his teammates and of the coaches, and ultimately his dream came true: On Nov. 8, 1975, he was allowed to suit up for the final home game of his college career… and during the last moments of the game, Ruettiger was put in the game and made the one and only tackle of his football career–he sacked the Georgia Tech quarterback. When the game ended, Rudy’s teammates carried him off the field. He is still the only player in the school’s history to be carried off the field on teammates’ shoulders. (“That’s BS,” Bob Golic, a teammate and friend of Rudy’s, told the L.A. Times. “In 1978, I got a concussion and they carried me off on a stretcher.”)
In 1976, Rudy received his bachelor’s degree in sociology from Notre Dame. After that he worked in a variety of occupations–from insurance sales to owning his own janitorial and real estate title companies–while chasing his next dream: to have his story made into a film. But the road through Hollywood would be a lot more difficult to travel than the road through South Bend. It took 16 years.
Finally, in 1993, TRISTAR Productions immortalized Ruettiger’s life story with the film, Rudy, written and produced by Angelo Pizzo and David Anspaugh, the team behind another classic sports film, Hoosiers. Rudy was played by Sean Astin. But Rudy recently revealed in an interview, “Chris O’Donnell had the role. The only reason he wasn’t picked was there was something about Astin at the last moment that changed their mind. I think it was his naive type of appeal. He did a great job.”
Beyond the casting of the lead, there were some dramatic alterations, as well:
In the film, Notre Dame coach Dan Devine is convinced to let Rudy dress for the last game by the players, who all turn in their jerseys in protest when he isn’t on the game list. In real life, “Dan made the announcement that I’d be playing at practice and everybody cheered,” he told the New York Times. Linebackers coach George Kelly added, “There’s no question he was on the dress list. It was posted on Thursday.” According to the Houston Chronicle, Devine was furious about the fictionalized scene. “The jersey scene is unforgivable. It’s a lie and untrue. Coming on the heels of ‘Under the Tarnished Dome’ (a book critical of the university’s football program). I don’t think it’s a very good thing for Notre Dame.”
In the film, Coach Devine is urged to let Ruettiger play by fans and players chanting “Ru-dy” during the last game. In real life, that wasn’t the case. In Devine’s autobiography, Simply Devine, he wrote that it was his idea to dress Rudy for the final game of his college career and also to play him. Devine revealed that screenwriter Angelo Pizzo told him that the plot would only work if he became the heavy. Devine agreed in order to help out Rudy. “I didn’t realize I would be such a heavy,” he wrote. Additionally, the fans didn’t chant his name until after he made his famous tackle on the final play.
In another case of dramatic license, Rudy’s older brother, Frank, constantly mocks his dreams. In real life, Rudy had two big sisters but was the oldest boy in a family of 14 children, none of them named Frank. That character, Ruettiger told the New York Times, is a composite of “everybody who ever discouraged me.”
The groundskeeper played by Charles S. Dutton wasn’t a real character. Rudy told the Pigskin Post, “He was a composite, but that was reality. And that’s what happened in my life…all through my life. I would encounter people like that and they would help me get through the tough times through their wisdom and their encouragement.”
On the set every day of production, Ruettiger served as a consultant and appeared in the film as a fan in Knute Rockne Stadium.
“It has a freshness and an earnestness that gets us involved, and by the end of the film we accept Rudy’s dream as more than simply sports sentiment. It’s a small but powerful illustration of the human spirit.”
–Roger Ebert on “Rudy.”
The film won strong reviews, including “Two Thumbs Up” from Siskel and Ebert. Rudy’s story went from being an anecdote for old-time Notre Dame fans to a cherished American fable.
Rudy was once again a celebrity. He even found himself in the White House, watching his movie with President Clinton, Joe Montana and Colin Powell.
“That’s pretty exciting,” Rudy recently said. “All I did was make a tackle. Think about it, you know? I didn’t win any super bowls, I didn’t become the president, I didn’t win any wars… I never quit.”
Today the film is a cherished classic — and nobody loves the film more than Rudy: Not long after the movie came out, the Los Angeles Times reported that he had seen the movie 26 times. And Newsday, after Rudy’s 24th viewing, reported he “cries every time.”
SportsHollywood: What films have inspired you?
RUDY: Rocky, Field of Dreams, Hoosiers, all those movies where the underdog is going against the stream. The characters use their imagination and embody the human spirit. I got inspired by the movie Rocky. I probably ate 100 raw eggs after seeing that movie. Unfortunately I got sick, but it wasn’t the eggs that were inspirational, it was his attitude.
SportsHollywood: Do people chant your name a lot on the streets or in supermarkets?
RUDY: You know, I don’t really get recognized unless I’m doing an interview or something like that. People don’t really know what I look like. Once they do recognize me, then yeah, they will cheer and stuff.
SportsHollywood: When you were pitching the project around town, what actor did you see playing yourself before Sean Astin was cast? Stallone?
RUDY: It was a very difficult search because we had to find an actor who could not only relate to the audience but win them over. I knew it had to be Sean from the beginning. I had followed his career, I’d seen Goonies, Memphis Belle, and had pictured him in the part as I wrote it. I had the movie planned out in my head before it was even in production. There was no other guy.
SportsHollywood: After Rudy was screened at the White House did President Clinton, Colin Powell and Joe Montana lift you up on their shoulders and chant “Rudy! Rudy”?
RUDY: Uh, I don’t think they would do that. They all really liked the movie. It was very exciting to see it with them. The Clintons said that “every kid in America should see this movie.” Joe Montana was a teammate of mine, I’m really proud of that.
SportsHollywood: Cast members Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau went on to do Swingers. There seem to be parallels in the two films–a young man following a dream, losing his home and his girlfriend as he follows the dream, but ultimately overcoming adversity to become a better, stronger person. Do you think the films are similar?
RUDY: Yes. Swingers was like John’s life, bucking the odds to get to Hollywood. Rudy was John’s first movie, and Vince and he got breaks after it. They wrote the screenplay after being in Rudy, then had the producer help them get it made. There are lots of parallels between John’s and my life–taking a challenge and going up against the odds.
SportsHollywood: Bigger challenge: Playing for Notre Dame or developing a movie?
RUDY: The movie was definitely the bigger challenge. You see I always knew I could get into Notre Dame. With Hollywood there was that element of uncertainty. It’s a tough business to get a story made, especially your own. It took ten years before it was made.
SportsHollywood: Which was more satisfying: Being carried off the field at Knute Rockne Stadium or getting “Two Thumbs Up” from Siskel and Ebert?
RUDY: Well, both were satisfying for different reasons. In both cases I had faced a challenge, had overcome obstacles. At Notre Dame to be carried off is a real honor, and it was a wonderful feeling to know I accomplished my goal, was a success. In terms of getting two thumbs up it’s a totally different thing. There it was an honor too, in the sense that those guys are critical and their support and approval meant acceptance for me and my story. Both meant a lot… but to pick which was better… probably Notre Dame.
SportsHollywood: What’s your next goal?
RUDY: Oh, we’re accomplishing them as we speak. We have started the foundation, we’ve got Rudy camps, and we are starting to give out scholarships. We target kids who have the drive and the talent but don’t necessarily have the means to accomplish all that they want to. And not all the kids are athletes, these are kids with heart who need a little help to overcome adversity and face the obstacles in front of them.
SportsHollywood: Can you envision Rudy, Part II?
RUDY: No. What would be part 2? That was a true story. That was it. It’s not like Rocky where they can create story lines for parts 2,3,4…
SportsHollywood: What athlete playing today reminds you the most of you?
RUDY: Wow. That’s a tough one. I have never thought about it in that way, in comparison to me as a person. I view athletes instead in terms of attitude. There are lots of people out there that are Rudys in some way or other. A “Rudy” is someone who is persistent, who has desire, determination. It’s how they put the light on the message, how the individual treats adversity. It’s the contribution, commitment to their dream. They say today, you know, “Be Like Mike.” But I don’t pin down stars as mentors like so many people today want to do. Just because they play a sport doesn’t mean that they have the rest of themselves together. What if you’re 5’4″? You’re not going to be like Mike on the courts, but you can be like him in the way he plays with the team, the way he treats his wife, his kids and his fans. That’s how you should see athletes, those with heart should be the mentors. I think if there is someone I’d want to hang with, it would be Randall Cunningham. He’s a family man, has had adversity, he’s a team player, a good guy.
Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger
Today, Rudy is a motivational speaker, entertaining corporate audiences, school children, university students, and professional athletes all over the country. He recently established the RUDY FOUNDATION, whose mission is to benefit children’s advocacy programs.
Rudy’s books, tapes and videos are available through RUDY INTERNATIONAL in Henderson, Nevada. Remember to ask for “Ru-dy! Ru-dy! Ru-dy!!!” (http://www.rudyintl.com/)
Interview by Alexis Ritchie.