Three months after Rudy Ruettiger graduated from Notre Dame, I arrived on campus as a freshman. I remember hearing comments about a walk-on who got to play during the previous season, but not much was made of it at the time.
Thirty years later, the film Rudy is now as much a part of the lore and legend of Notre Dame football as the stories of Knute Rockne, the Gipper and the Four Horsemen.
And since it is a contemporary story with endearing qualities that transcend football, more people probably know more about Rudy than the Notre Dame legends listed above.
That’s a good thing, because the film’s message of working hard to achieve your dreams, despite the odds, setbacks or negative comments from others, is an important theme to live by.
Even though he was “five foot nothing, weighed 100 and nothing, without a speck of athletic ability,” Rudy had a heart that would not quit. He had nurtured a dream since he was a boy – to play football for Notre Dame.
With this dream came another – he wanted to be different than other Ruettigers and get a college degree.
He was not a good student in high school, but he worked very hard at Holy Cross Junior College to pass his college courses. Eventually, he was accepted to Notre Dame. At football tryouts, he worked extremely hard during practice, even though he was pounded unmercifully by All-American players. His hard work and desire impressed the coaches enough to land himself a spot on the practice squad.
He never dressed on Saturday afternoons during that first year, but he held on to his dream. Finally, in the last home game of his senior year, Rudy was given a uniform and ran out of the tunnel as a true player on the team.
Near the end of the game, with a victory assured, Rudy was inserted into the game on the kick-off team. His dream of playing football for Notre Dame had finally come true. As the end of the film shows, Rudy made the most of his opportunity to play.
I met Rudy last month at a fundraising luncheon downtown. Shorter than me, in college he must have looked a lot like Sean Astin, the actor who portrays him in the film.
Yet despite his short stature, his voice and his spirit created a commanding presence. Speaking to 500+ business leaders and executives, Rudy summarized his story and laid it out very clearly for us parents.
“Having a dream is what makes life exciting. Never underestimate the power of a dream. It will change your life. It will change your children’s lives. A dream gives you the ability to determine the future.”
We all have dreams. Some of them are foremost in our daily thoughts, while others are just vague longings for something different, something better.
How do you determine whether your dream is worthwhile? What’s the difference between a dream that is full of purpose versus one that is just a hollow, human fantasy?
Rick Warren in the best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life says simply, “It’s not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, even your happiness….If you want to know why you were placed on this earth, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.”
He goes on to write that many self-help books, even Christian ones, usually offer the same predictable steps: Know your dreams. Understand your values. Set some goals. Aim high. Believe in yourself. Never give up.
These steps often lead to great success – they certainly worked for Rudy. But as Warren writes, “being successful and fulfilling your life’s purpose are not at all the same issue. You could be a great success by the world’s standard and still miss the purpose for which God created you.”
By simplifying our lives and focusing on what is most important, we can understand the purpose God has for our lives.
For me, the highlight of Rudy is not his final tackle or the players carrying him off the field. It’s the note at the end telling us that five of Rudy’s brothers and sisters followed him and graduated from college.
For ten seconds during one November day in 1975, Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger used his God-given talents to be a success on the football field. Since then, however, he has been living out his God-given purpose to inspire others to know themselves and to become the best individuals they can be.
Imagine a world in which we all use our God-given talents and purposes to help the world be a better place in which to live. It would truly be heaven on earth.
First published in the November 3, 2006 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2006 Christopher Fenoglio