Local News

April 29, 2011

Rudy says to 'dream big'

Rudy Ruettiger, who was forever immortalized in the 1993 movie “Rudy” in which actor Sean Astin played the role of the walk on football player that inspired a sports nation, found his calling about a year later.

He became a motivational speaker.

“It didn’t start out with a bang,” said Ruettiger, the guest speaker at Thursday night’s ninth annual Steak & Stake Dinner benefiting the Boys and Girls Clubs of Gordon, Murray and Whitfield Counties. “At first they bring you out to speak as a celebrity because of the movie. But I found out that I needed a message to keep this thing going.

“My message was: dream big.”

It didn’t take Ruettiger long to throw in a few other items that helped him become one of the most sought after speakers around.

“You have to have your character in line,” the 62-year-old Ruettiger said. “You need a commitment because the choices you make have to do with whether you can do anything in life. Finally, you have to persevere.”

Now, Ruettiger, still 5-foot, 6-inches, as he was during his time with the Irish but with just a few more pounds on what used to be his 165-pound frame, travels the country inspiring audiences with a well-delivered message mixed with emotion and levity.

On Tuesday, Ruettiger spoke in Charlotte, N.C. After his stop in Dalton, the native of Joliet, Ill., moves on to New Orleans for a Saturday engagement, zips up to St. Louis on Monday and will be in Utah a day later.

“I used to schedule six months to a year out,” he said. “Because of the economy it’s dropped to six months to three months, and now it’s 30 days. But I have more than 100 of these things every year. In 18 years, I’ve never lost a date.”

The 275 or so people, including Boys and Girls Clubs members, were highly entertained by Ruettiger’s talk at the organization’s major fundraiser.

Ruettiger, whose dream was to attend Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., went to Joliet Catholic High School and admittedly wasn’t the greatest student in his class. He went to Holy Cross Junior College near the Irish campus for two years. After first being denied admission into Notre Dame, he was finally accepted, got a job with the school’s groundskeeping staff and was befriended by “D-Bob,” a graduate student. “D-Bob,” now a federal judge, insisted that Rudy be tested to determine the underlying cause of his academic problems. The diagnosis was dyslexia.

Part of his dream has become reality, but Ruettiger silently wonders how it all happened.

“I thought, what right do I have being at Notre Dame,” he said. “Where I was earlier in my life I didn’t think I had the right to be there. Later on I couldn’t believe I was getting my degree. I told people I was third in my (high school) class — from the bottom. But I lived my dream. I figured out what was possible by doing the best I could do. You don’t have to be the best. I thought I had to be Mickey Mantle or Bart Starr. That’s not it at all. I am somebody.”

But when the movie was released in October 1993 — in 1992 it became the first movie Notre Dame’s administration allowed to be shot on campus since “Knute Rockne, All-American” in 1940 — Ruettiger, one of 14 children, became known globally for basically making one defensive play in all his time with the Irish.

In 1975, Ruettiger’s claim to fame was practicing with the Irish scout team. That was it. In the final game of the season, Notre Dame had a comfortable lead over Georgia Tech. Coach Dan Devine was reluctant to honor Ruettiger’s request made to former coach Ara Parseghian, to suit up with his teammates for the Tech game. Devine relented and after Notre Dame’s final touchdown sent Ruettiger onto the field.

There is plenty of confusion in the public domain about the final 27 seconds of the game.

Some reports have Rudy, who served in the Navy two years and worked at a power plant for two years and was 27 years old at the time, on the field for one play, a quarterback sack, and then the game ends. Other published accounts indicate he was on the field for two plays. Ruettiger set the record straight prior to Thursday’s banquet.

“Actually, I was in for three plays,” he said. “After the touchdown, they sent me in for the kickoff. I’ve got a picture on my phone (and he does) and I’m standing by Steve Orsini, he’s now the athletic director at Southern Methodist University. The kickoff goes through the end zone. That was one play.

“As I’m coming off the field, a coach tells me to get back out there. I line up at left defensive end, replacing Gene Smith, now the athletic director at Ohio State. On the second play, I just missed the Tech quarterback. I look up at the clock and there’s five seconds left. The clock is stopped because their quarterback, Rudy Allen, threw an incomplete pass. The students were chanting my name over and over. A lot of them knew me because I was a champion boxer at Notre Dame and they liked the guts and glory of a story that appeared in the school newspaper the week of the Georgia Tech game. On the next play, I shifted right and cut left and there was Rudy Allen right in front of me and I got him.”

With the game over, Ruettiger said several of his senior teammates carried him off the field. Not all because “some of them didn’t think much of me,” he said.

“Later in the Irish locker room, I think all of them came by and told me what I had done was great,” Ruettiger said. “That was neat.”

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