Rudy, by Jeffrey Reed
As Published By Forever Young March 2009
The University of Notre Dame football program is steeped in tradition. Mention the Fighting Irish out of South Bend, Indiana and names like Knute Rockne, The Four Horsemen, legendary head coach Ara Parseghian and quarterback Joe Montana – just to name a few – come to mind.
Yet, in the history of this storied U.S. college football team, only one player has ever been carried off the field in victory: Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger. He dressed for only one game in 1975, and his statistics show only one tackle, but Rudy (as he has become known) is one of the most recognizable faces in Notre Dame Fighting Irish history.
Twenty-three years ago, the impossible happened. A virtually unknown practice squad player, standing just 5’7” and weighing only 165 pounds, dressed for his only game, versus the Georgia Tech Bulldogs, and made a tackle to end the football game. Of course, it was the inspirational journey – not the tackle – that has made Rudy Ruettiger a household name, thanks to the 1993 movie entitled, Rudy.
It’s hard to believe Ruettiger turned 60 years old on August 23. Residing in the posh Southern Highlands Golf Club Community in Las Vegas with his wife, Cheryl, and their children, Jessica and Daniel, Rudy still talks of his dream come true at Notre Dame with the same passion it took for him to see that dream come to fruition.
“This is life. This is not just Notre Dame!” Ruettiger says of his real-life storybook tale which has become the cornerstone of his numerous business ventures. He has travelled the world as a motivational speaker, delivering the message of, The Power of The Dream. The Rudy Ruettiger Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to the support and recognition of those who aspire to fulfill their dreams through character, courage, contribution and commitment. The Rudy Award Program recognizes children who make an outstanding, exceptional effort to do their personal best every day, overcome obstacles, set goals, and build character, courage, contribution and commitment.
Ruettiger is an author, a multiple award winner for his humanitarian efforts, is marketing his new sports drink, the Rudy Beverage, and is in discussions to have the film, Rudy, become, Rudy: The Musical. And, of course, the movie, Rudy, continues to inspire millions.
Ruettiger doesn’t sound like someone who has just turned 60. In fact, he has the energy of a teenager, evident by all of his endeavours. It’s a testament to his belief that you can achieve anything if you dream big and work hard. That conviction keeps him young at heart, and he’s not afraid to show his emotions when reminiscing about his famous story.
The first boy and the third of 14 children growing up in Joliet, Illinois, Ruettiger watched Notre Dame on television and idolized the Fighting Irish blue and gold. He says, “It was part of our life. It was the way to be. It was like, if I could go to Notre Dame, I can be someone. Your family’s not rich. You’re not a great athlete. And you know only smart kids go there.
“My dad worked three jobs just to put food on the table,” says Ruettiger. “We played football all the time – dreaming. I’m a dreamer, just like they said I was in high school. I’m not a doer. I’m a dreamer.”
Ruettiger did not fare well in high school, as he lived with Dyslexia. It wasn’t until he attended college that his disability was diagnosed. Says Ruettiger, “They didn’t really understand the learning disorders when I was growing up. So, they would call you slow, or stupid, or uneducatable, untraineable, uncoachable.”
It’s not in the movie, but after high school, Rudy enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served his country as a sailor aboard two ships, the destroyer USS Robert L. Wilson, and the communication and command cruiser USS North Hampton.
“I had high expectations,” remembers Rudy of his Notre Dame dream. “That came from my military background. After you’ve been through something like the Navy, you have a certain level of confidence.”
After he was honourably discharged, Rudy returned home and worked at a power plant. In 1972, his best friend, Pete, who had given Rudy a Notre Dame jacket on his birthday, died in an industrial accident, changing Rudy’s life forever.
“I believe in soul mates,” says Rudy. “His death gave me a reason (to pursue Notre Dame). It made me realize, I better get my life straightened out.”
As Rudy boarded a bus and stepped on the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, he says it “cleansed all of the negative feelings I had about life and made me very powerful.”
An independent national Catholic university, Notre Dame remains one of the most prestigious schools in North America. Admission is highly competitive. Without the grades to enter Notre Dame, and with the assistance of a priest – one of Rudy’s many mentors – he was able to study at Holy Cross Junior College for two years. After three rejections, he was accepted at Notre Dame and transferred there in the fall of 1974 – at age 26.
As if his miraculous academic success wasn’t enough, the diminutive yet stubborn Ruettiger was determined to play football for Parseghian. Ruettiger was small but tough – he was a boxer at Notre Dame – and his grit and determination saw him win a spot on the practice squad as a walk-on player.
“This is real stuff! This is not a dream. This is reality,” remembers Rudy of those bruising practices. “I got hit from the blind side one day. I thought I actually died. I got hit so hard. You ever get hit by a truck? No. But if you got hit by a truck, and you don’t know it’s coming, can you imagine what that feels like? That’s how it felt.”
Despite the fact he had already overcome miraculous odds, Rudy’s dream wasn’t complete. Not even close. He wanted to play in a real home game at Notre Dame Stadium – his childhood dream that had seemed so far away.
“There is a magical feeling here,” says Rudy. “Tradition just comes out of the walls. You feel the ghost of Rockne. You feel the ghosts of all these great football players, 60,000 people yelling for those kids running through that (stadium) tunnel (from the locker room).”
In 1975, Dan Devine had taken over the coaching reigns from Parseghian. In the movie, Devine is made out to be the villain, dressing Rudy for the final game of the regular season only after a number of his teammates asked that Rudy play in their place. But in reality, Devine supported the move when the team captain asked that Rudy dress.
“The students at Notre Dame found out about Rudy through a newspaper article,” explains Ruettiger. “I talked about, it was my dream to play football for Notre Dame. It would be a dream come true if I could play football one time, one second for Notre Dame. Just step on that field during the game would be a dream come true.
“About three minutes left in that football game, I said, why can’t I play? We’re winning, it won’t matter whether I play or not. When the coach says, ‘Get in there Rudy,’ I said, no. I’m a defensive player. He got mad! And the minute I said that, Notre Dame scored. Now they had to put me in the football game.”
Rudy actually saw action for two plays. On is second play, with five seconds left on the clock, Rudy made the tackle.
“I remember lining up. It was so awesome because everything goes in slow motion now,” says Rudy, tearing up, still emotional today. “As I tackled him, the game ended. And that’s when the team picked me up. That was a special moment. A moment of pride. The Power of the Dream.”
That dream continues today, with Rudy’s numerous business and philanthropic ventures. Even getting his life story on film took a lot of faith and perseverance.
“I was inspired by the movie, Rocky,” says Rudy. “It took me 10 years, though, to get this movie made. (Columbia) Tristar was looking for a small-budget sports movie.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Now, Rudy: The Musical is in the works. “It just so happens that a guy who runs a big theatre in San Diego is a Notre Dame graduate, and he loves this as a musical,” says Rudy. “I’m finding out, everyone loves Rudy as a musical. It will be different than the movie – more uplifting.”
That’s hard to imagine, but today when Daniel “Rudy” Reuttiger chases a dream, you have to believe it will come true. It’s his message of hope – a message that personifies his life mission.
“You know, that’s the most powerful thing you can give someone - giving your spirit to other people. Giving them the feeling of, you know, it’s worth it, all this hard work. It was worth it, even when it looked the darkest,” says Rudy.
“It’s like a little boy coming up to me today, a 10-year-old boy saying, ‘I’m going to Notre Dame.’ I will never say to him, you can’t. I will always say to him, you’re going to do it.”