Waking Up the Echoes

updated 11/01/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/01/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

THEY WERE 27 SECONDS FOR WHICH HE spent the first half of his life planning and praying, 27 seconds he has spent the second half remembering. The date was Nov. 8, 1975. and Notre Dame defensive back Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, a marginal player who had never even lined up in a game before, stood with eyes fixed on the Georgia Tech quarterback, who was about to run one last play before the clock licked down on another lopsided Fighting Irish victory. The ball was snapped, Ruettiger rushed forward, tackled the quarterback—and suddenly the game was over and his teammates were carrying him off the field.

Why was this happening to a 5'6", 185-pound fifth-stringer who'd been in for just one meaningless play? Because Ruettiger had by then become a kind of campus poster boy for grit and persistence. The Joliet, Ill., native had scratched and clawed his way first into the school and then onto the team despite poor high school grades and limited athletic ability. "Our attitude at first was, 'Go away,' " says former teammate Willie Fry. "But he wouldn't go away. Basically you had to like Rudy because you couldn't get rid of him." Ara Parseghian, the coach Ruettiger had pestered for a chance to play, says that Rudy, after serving as a human tackling dummy at football practices, "had earned the right to be there."

These days Ruettiger is still struggling, but he is also the hero of Rudy, a movie that recounts his rise from a working-class household where he was the third of 14 children to his brief moment of gridiron glory. Reviews have been generally positive, and Rudy is off to a decent start at the box office. But hit or flop, the film will stand as another monument to its subject's dogged determination—in this case, to get his story, and message, onto the screen. "It's okay to have dreams, if you stay true to them," says Ruettiger, 45, who lives alone in South Bend, Ind., near the Notre Dame campus. "Because dreams can come true."

As a kid, Rudy had little more than his dreams. His father, Daniel Sr., was an oil-refinery superintendent: his mother, Belly, a very busy homemaker. At church on Sundays, says Ruettiger, the priest "started every Mass with the Fighting Trish scores. I didn't even know Notre Dame was a school. I thought it was a place God sent football players to beat the Protestants."

Rudy wanted desperately to be part of that place. But his family had no money, and his grade point average at Joliet Catholic High was 1.77 out of 4. After graduation he look a job at a power plant. "I wanted something better," he says, "but I didn't know how to get it." It wasn't until 1971—after two years in the Navy—that life gave him a painful nudge: the sudden death of a friend in an accident at the plant. Says Reuttiger: "I realized that life's too short not to pursue your dreams."

Rudy, then 23, moved to South Bend and enrolled at Holy Cross Junior College (his tuition was paid under the GI Bill) with the goal of transferring into Notre Dame as soon as he earned the necessary grades. There at Holy Cross, he was diagnosed for the first time as dyslexic; he received special tutoring and maintained a B average. In 1974, after two rejections, Ruettiger was finally accepted at Notre Dame. That same year he managed, by dint of sheer stubbornness, to earn his precarious spot on the football team.

The movie Rudy takes some liberties with the facts and ends on a note of triumph. But Ruettiger did not simply live happily ever after. "I lost it after I was carried off the field that day," he admits. "I didn't have a goal anymore." Though he graduated in 1976 with a degree in sociology, he began to drift—from a Chicago insurance company to Baltimore, where he started, then sold, a janitorial service, then peddled disability insurance door-to-door. "I like the chase," he says. "But once I get there, I get bored."

In 1983 he married Joyce Tucker, a computer-systems analyst; in 1986 the couple divorced. By then, making a movie of his Notre Dame years had become Rudy's obsession. He moved back to South Bend in 1986 and got his first breakthrough in 1989 when, through an acquaintance, he hooked up with Angelo Pizzo, the Indiana native who had directed the hit 1986 basketball movie Hoosiers. Ruettiger sent Pizzo a script, but Pizzo wasn't interested. "I really don't like Notre Dame," he told Ruettiger. Unwilling, as usual, to take no for an answer, Ruettiger won Pizzo over in time, and in 1991 they had a deal with Columbia Pictures.

Rudy earned $200,000 for the rights to his story. His main source of income now is motivational speeches, which he has been giving at the rate of about one a month at companies such as Sears and NCR—and demand has increased since Rudy opened. "Most of my life I was a failure, or so I was told," he tells audiences. "But I slopped listening to people tell me I couldn't make it."

Not everyone gets swept up in Rudy's message. Much of the reaction to the movie on campus has been positive. But an article in Notre Dame's student newspaper, the Observer, recently chastised him, says Ruettiger, for "shamelessly selling" his story to Hollywood. And Sean Astin, the actor who plays Ruettiger in Rudy, was booed by a few cynics at halftime during a Notre Dame game three days after the local premiere. Rudy says that reaction hurts but he knows how to handle his critics. "I'm going to stay away from negative people," he says. "Everything was given to these people. But they don't get it. They," he adds with a sigh, "don't have a dream."

BONNIE BELL in South Bend

From Our Partners