Story of 'Rudy,' a one-act play, is a testimonial to determination

June 20, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

Everything about "Rudy," the man and movie of the same name, is the essence of how in America there is a way to achieve regardless of bias and barriers. He was told that he was stupid, ugly and unacceptable in an academic way for entrance to Notre Dame. He finished third in his high school class. That's from the bottom, not the top.

College wasn't possible scholastically or financially, yet "Rudy" made it happen. There were 14 children in the family in Joliet, Ill., and it was such a tough struggle he laughs when telling how his brother chased after him to get his underwear back. Clothes were recycled, which is the way it is when times are tough and parents have numerous mouths to feed and bodies to keep warm.

Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger not only survived but succeeded. He took a job in a power plant, enlisted in the Navy and then found Holy Cross Junior College would accept his grades. Notre Dame was his dream but it rejected him on three different occasions as unqualified.

Still, he pushed onward. He had a form of dyslexia so it meant he had to learn and study differently than others in his class. But there was no denying his vastly improved average of 3.4 and Notre Dame finally bowed to his persistence.

Then he went out for football, 5 feet 6, 158 pounds, and everyone laughed. He got to practice with the varsity, an animated blocking dummy, what coaches used to call "cannon fodder." On Saturdays, when the team was playing, he sat in the stands.

But for the final home game of 1975, against Georgia Tech, he got in for the last 28 seconds. It was only after the 59,075 spectators took up the chant of what began with a handful of his admirers screaming: "We Want Rudy" . . . "We Want Rudy." Coaches don't like to bow to that kind of crowd pressure but, eventually, Dan Devine submitted.

"Rudy" went on the field. There was bedlam. And, on his first and only play, he sacked the quarterback, Rudy Allen of Tech. A career was to commence and be completed within 28 seconds. His elated teammates hoisted him to their shoulders and, realizing how symbolic he was of football and his deep love of the sport, carried him to the locker room on their shoulders. A hero's ride.

After graduation, "Rudy" came to Baltimore and remained for eight years, working for an advertising agency, selling insurance and real estate for the Joseph Loverde company. His dream was to sell his life story to a movie producer so the world would know about how it is to have an objective and battle toward the goal despite the obstacles.

Those he told about the idea laughed. How could a film be made about a one-play football player at Notre Dame? What commercial return would there be? Would anyone want to watch? For eight years, he lived with the dream.

"I remember when I was in Baltimore, I didn't have money to live in an apartment so a man I met named Herb Garnes, who owned a towing company, let me sleep in a warehouse at 2901 West Mulberry St., where I lived for six months. Then I got the thought of starting a janitorial service but none of the banks would lend me money."

That's when he returned to Notre Dame, walked in to talk with Ara Parseghian, a retired coach he knew from his first year with the practice squad, and asked for a loan. "When I was trying to play for him, he would never give me a uniform," he said. "But he gave me a personal check for $20,000. He believed in my ability to make the business work. I returned to Baltimore, got started and paid him back in a year."

"Rudy" then began, in earnest, the chase to have his story told in the movies. "I was cutting grass to make money in South Bend and, one good thing, the lawn mower never talked back," he said. "But people still laughed and would needle me by asking 'How is the movie coming?' They were the same ones that told me, after it came out, that they believed in me.

"You know what, instead of turning my back or reminding them of how they treated me, I thanked them for helping me get to where I wanted to go. I used that anger as motivation to accomplish what I wanted."

Since the movie, a box-office smash, "Rudy" is something of a folk hero. He makes talks all over the country for high fees but yesterday waived any payment, because of his friendship with his old boss, Loverde, as a contribution to the Howard County Arts Council. The message he gave was interspersed with humor and meaning.

"Don't use anger to square the account," he said. "Use anger, after you've been put down, as an opportunity to grow. We don't need to hate our fellow man. We need respect and to talk of the good things in life. I believed it when I was a kid and my second best friend told me I was ugly. I couldn't get a date for my high school prom because I believed I was ugly."

In the audience yesterday were former Baltimore Colts John Unitas, Ordell Braase, Tom Matte, Rev. Joe Ehrmann, Don McCafferty, the son of the late coach; Sean Landeta of the St. Louis Rams, and Jim Speros, owner of the Baltimore Canadian Football League team.

"I like everything about Rudy," said Unitas. "My kids and I have watched his movie three times. He's no phony."

"Rudy" is a walking, talking inspiration. No one-play player ever made such an impact on America.

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