The story of Notre Dame icon Rudy Ruettiger? It's almost too good to be true

ByRyan McGee ESPN logo
Friday, December 27, 2019

On the night of Sept. 30, 1974, Daniel Eugene Ruettiger made eye contact with Elvis Presley.

It happened just outside Gate 8 of Notre Dame's Athletic and Convocation Center, not as the King was leaving the building but as he arrived. Presley's limousine rolled up, parked outside and just sat there. For a long time ... past the scheduled 8:30 p.m. start of Elvis' concert inside, where 12,301 fans were waiting.

Ruettiger -- better known as Rudy, of the "Ru-dy! Ru-dy! Ru-dy!" chants -- was working as a student security guard for the show and crept up next to the car. He heard Presley's entourage, desperately trying to coax their boss, who had become self-conscious about his weight, to take the stage. An inspired Rudy bolted to his makeshift dorm room inside the arena, little more than a storage closet, and snatched up one of his Notre Dame Boxing T-shirts.

Rudy ran back to the limo, worked his way as close to the Cadillac as he could and tossed the shirt at the feet of the King. Presley saw it, smiled and shouted out, "Hold on, buddy." That's when Elvis handed Rudy a little rubber hound dog and thanked him for the gift before heading for the stage as the first notes of "2001" boomed up through the tunnel to greet him.

As Rudy now sits at a coffee shop just outside the King's second-favorite city, Las Vegas, you find yourself wanting to believe every story Rudy tells, even if those stories seem too good to be true.

"Years later, I met Elvis' stepbrother," Ruettiger says of Rick Stanley, the Memphis Mafia member-turned-Baptist preacher who died earlier this year. "He told me Elvis used to wear that Notre Dame Boxing T-shirt around Graceland all the time. Said Elvis loved it. Can you believe that?"

Whether you believe it or not, that's almost beside the point. This is the essence of Rudy -- where fact and fiction, belief and skepticism, get blended together until you're not exactly sure what really happened. And like every event in the 1993 movie that put him on a first-name basis with America -- you want to believe. The story in the movie, it turns out, is merely one chapter of a much denser everyman-meets-every man saga, a life that is equal parts Walter Mitty and Forrest Gump.

From former walk-ons likeBaker Mayfieldand Dabo Swinney to random people who stop him on the street to tell him how much his story means to them, Rudy motivates people. He makes them believe.

But for everyone he inspires, there are also the people and headlines attempting to tear him down.

They are the ones who told Rudy he would never attend Notre Dame. Then they told him he would never survive there as a football walk-on, or that a 5-foot-6 tackling dummy would ever actually dress for a game, let alone play. After his 27 seconds of glory against Georgia Tech in 1975, they said he was insane for thinking all of the above would ever make it to the silver screen. And now, a quarter century after "Rudy" was in theaters, they are still here. They question his true role in Notre Dame's unparalleled college football history and constantly challenge him to defend the truthfulness of the film that bears his name.

They are skeptical of a 71-year-old man who somehow still makes his living off a should-have-been-inconsequential half-minute on college football's most famous field.

Rudy knows it. Hell, he thrives on it.

"They have always been there, so why wouldn't they be there now?" he says.

Rudy's personality is part of the reason. He's best described as likably abrasive. Every day and every conversation is a relentless series of motivational stories, punctuated by F-bombs and simplified explanations for missteps. As Gerry DiNardo, a former Notre Dame teammate and current Big Ten Network analyst, puts it, "He was my friend and he was a total pain in my ass."

How could one former walk-on provoke eye-rolls one minute but then inspire others to run through a wall for him the next?

The answer all depends on how much you want to believe.

'Hell yeah, it happened!'

"Rudy" was not the No. 1 film at the box office in 1993. It ranked 69th, and with a take of $22.7 million ($40.3 million adjusted for inflation), it wasn't even the highest-grossing college football film of the year (albeit by a scant $282K to James Caan's "The Program").

But over the past 25 years, "Rudy" has evolved well past being a sports movie. It's a pop culture pillar that, like its namesake at a Notre Dame practice, refuses to go away.

"Rudy" has been a one-man stage show on Broadway; orchestras perform the movie score live while the film plays behind them; it even has been used to sell fried chicken. Rudy has written two books. He won a regional Emmy for the 2017 documentary "Rudy Ruettiger: The Walk-On," which is still being streamed. He spends his entire year on and off airplanes to visit schools, make corporate speeches, sign autographs and tackle the occasional life-coaching gig. And that KFC ad? That's the real Ruettiger playing the part of the father, imploring Sean Astin, who plays Rudy in the original film, "You can't be Colonel Sanders. You're Rudy!"

The most recent generations of fans associate the name Rudy with Notre Dame football every bit as much as, if not more than, they do with Knute Rockne, Paul Hornung and Joe Montana. In 2012, when Notre Dame football celebrated its 125th anniversary, only a small handful of former players were asked to speak on the program's behalf. Among them were Montana, fellow NFL legends Tim Brown and Jerome Bettis ... and, yes, Rudy Ruettiger.

Some find it very irritating. Mentioning Rudy in South Bend is the Notre Dame equivalent of bringing up the designated hitter, targeting rules or politics at Thanksgiving dinner. It creates an instant galvanization in a room. Some claim they were there for Rudy's Nov. 8, 1975, sack of Georgia Tech quarterback Rudy Allen as time expired and he was carried off the field by a handful of teammates; others, like Montana did on national radio in 2010, downplay Rudy's sack and the entire day as simply not as big of a deal as everyone has been made to believe by Hollywood magic.

"It's a movie, remember ... not all that's true," Montana said on "The Dan Patrick Show," igniting headlines from "Entertainment Tonight" to TMZ. "The crowd wasn't chanting ... nobody threw in their jerseys." Montana added that when Rudy was carried off the field, his teammates were "kind of playing around. I won't say as a joke, but playing around. He worked his butt off to get where he was ... but not any harder than anybody else." (Montana declined ESPN's interview requests for this story.)

For the record, Montana is correct. Rudy's fellow seniors didn't really line up and defiantly lay their jerseys down on head coach Dan Devine's desk so Rudy could play.

"But a group of guys did go to the coaching staff to figure out a way to get me into a jersey for that Georgia Tech game," Rudy says.

As for the crowd chanting his name at the end of the game?

"Hell yeah, it happened!" Ruettiger says. "Man, if just my family and friends alone had done it, it would have been enough, but there was a group of students who started it."

For all the digging into and doubting of what made it into the film, in many cases the truths trimmed for time or storytelling tools are more intriguing than what made the cut. In "Rudy," the years spent between high school and college seem covered in a fade to black, seeming lost as he is solely depicted toiling in a steel mill (he actually worked in a power plant). In reality, the Notre Dame arena floor was the second deck he'd had to swab. Right out of Joliet Catholic High, he enlisted in the Navy, serving on the destroyer U.S.S. Robert L. Wilson, which escorted the U.S.S. Enterprise across the Atlantic. Hell, he even steered the thing. ("That's another question I get all the time: 'Hey, Rudy, how the hell could you even afford to go to college?' The G.I. Bill. That's a wonderful thing, Coach.")

Sailor Rudy walked the streets of Athens, swam in the Mediterranean and even saw the Pope speak at the Vatican. (By the way, Rudy is Mormon now. Well, he still identifies as Catholic, but he has been baptized in the churches of at least three different denominations, attends services at a fourth and his children attended the school of a fifth. "When St. Peter comes calling, I've got my bases covered, Coach.") One night while at the helm of the Wilson, he noticed a Notre Dame class ring on a young lieutenant's hand. When he told the officer that he wanted to go to school there, Rudy braced himself for the usual response of "That's crazy. Shut up and do your job." Instead, the officer encouraged him.

He later went to work at the local power plant. One day, Rudy and his friend Siskel were called to fix a jam in the plant's coal delivery system. Siskel got there ahead of Rudy and didn't want to wait for help. When the conveyor cranked back to life, it carried Siskel through 10 coal crushers. He died while Rudy tried to administer mouth-to-mouth.

"I will never forget that taste and that smell," he says now. "They were taking him away and I was standing there, covered in his blood, with that taste still in my mouth. Then I heard a voice as clear as you talking to me right now. You call it whatever you want. My gut, my conscious, God. All it said was, 'Leave.' So I walked right out that damn door, packed my stuff and I headed to South Bend."

From there, even the stuff that didn't make it into the movie was worthy of the silver screen. Meeting Elvis, winning the Bengal Bouts, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Didn't know about that one? Well, Rudy lived in the Notre Dame basketball arena because the university needed someone there full time for insurance purposes. They added two tiny dorm rooms for a student to live in, and in turn those students worked various jobs throughout the building. That's how Rudy met Elvis. He also worked security for Elton John, Kiss, Neil Diamond and the Doobie Brothers.

During games, he was the guy with the towel and the mop who had to run out onto the court and soak up sweat whenever a player fell onto the hardwood. Among those players was Bill Walton. When Walton led UCLA to victory over Notre Dame and the program's 61st consecutive win, the feat landed Walton on the cover of SI's Feb. 5, 1973, issue. In the bottom left-hand corner, you can see Rudy, watching the game and waiting to swab the deck. That is, if you received one of the rare copies in which the address label didn't cover him up.

Rudy's popularity with the Notre Dame student body started even before he enrolled. While he was still a student at nearby Holy Cross College, hoping to transfer to Notre Dame, the diminutive pugilist won the hearts of his future football teammates by whipping them in the ring. After nearly winning the campus Bengal Bouts title in his junior year, he did so the year after. That's where the first echoes of the "Ru-dy!" chant started, in the boxing tournament started decades earlier by Knute Rockne. It is how Rudy had that T-shirt to give to Elvis.

"Let me tell you something, Coach ..."

(Rudy calls everyone "Coach." All the time. He does it so much, anyone chatting with him for any length of time will catch themselves doing it too.)

"We all have people in our lives who think we are full of it. People who will tell you that they are your friends but they aren't," he says. "People who will try to tear you down, whether it's looking at you as a teenager and telling you that you are too stupid for college or it's someone saying to you as a 70-year-old guy who had a movie made about him, 'What the hell, dude, those guys didn't put their jerseys on Dan Devine's desk so you could play! That's bulls---, so you must be bulls---!'"

His voice raises. It cracks.

"Those people, Coach, their whole goal in life is to steal your joy, to steal that feeling. You can't let them do it. ... We don't owe them anything. We accomplish what we do in our lives in spite of the joy stealers. You don't let them burn you down. You burn their bulls--- for fuel."

'The following is based on a true story'

Back in the 1980s and early '90s, Rudy was no longer the crazy little Notre Dame walk-on. He was the crazy former Notre Dame walk-on obsessed with making a movie about his life.

He sold insurance and Amway, and then sold cars, until the guy who ran the dealership said Rudy was too focused on making a movie to sell cars. So he then started mowing lawns. He says he would host cookouts at his South Bend condo, where Notre Dame players, past and present, coaches and anyone would stop by. They'd drink beer and Rudy would tell them all -- again -- about how he had seen "Rocky" in the movie theater nearly one year to the day after his sack against Georgia Tech and, "Damn it, Coach, I'm gonna make a movie about my story because it can inspire people just like Sly Stallone did."

Skip Holtz, Barry Alvarez, Roger Clemens, President Gerald Ford's son, Jack. Rudy says you'd never know who might show up. Even star actress Julia Roberts showed up with her boyfriend, actor Jason Patric ("The Lost Boys"), and Patric's father, Jason Miller, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for "That Championship Season" and an Oscar nominee for his role of the priest in "The Exorcist."

Miller was going to help Rudy write his movie, but he never did (though the diehard Fighting Irish fan did end up playing Ara Parseghian in the movie). Neither did Frank Capra Jr., the son of the man behind "It's a Wonderful Life" and the muscle behind the "Planet of the Apes" sequels and "Firestarter." Rudy says Capra loved the idea but couldn't sell it.

Rudy was supposed to meet with screenwriter Angelo Pizzo of "Hoosiers" fame but got stood up. He says he persuaded a local mail carrier to show him Pizzo's address and banged on the door until Pizzo agreed to a meeting. Pizzo, an Indiana University grad, said he hated Notre Dame and didn't want to be pigeon-holed in Hollywood as a guy who only wrote movies about sports in Indiana.

A year later, Pizzo called back. The executive who greenlit "Hoosiers" in 1986 was now at a different studio and had money set aside to do another small sports movie. So in early 1991, Pizzo flew to South Bend and spent weeks walking the campus, talking with Rudy and his friends. Then he told Rudy to trust him.

"It was six months of silence before he sent me that script and I was a nervous wreck," Rudy remembers. "I read it in one sitting and I cried my eyes out. He understood me. He understood my spirit. I knew we had something that could really inspire people, and that's all I wanted.

"But I also realized there were some creative choices that were made in that script that were going to require some explaining to the people who lived it."

And Rudy wants to make clear that people like Devine and his immediate family were far more supportive of his dream than was depicted in the movie. In other words, Rudy Truthers, there's a reason the first image "Rudy" viewers see onscreen isn't a football or a golden dome. It's this sentence: "The following is based on a true story."

Astin says that all these years later, this movie is the one fans love to pick apart when they talk to him, even more than Tolkien fanatics.

"It's not 100 percent true, but the emotional response that 'Rudy' creates in people, that's what's true," Astin said. "That's why we are here, talking about this film 25 years later."

'And that's the truth'

Rudy is wearing a Notre Dame windbreaker. Of course he is.

"I wanted to make sure you knew who I was when you saw me," Ruettiger explains. "Everyone always shows up expecting to see Sean Astin."

We head to his suburban place in Henderson, Nevada. It's nice but far from extravagant, representative of a man who lives comfortably but has never reaped millions in Hollywood riches that some might assume he has. He is talking nonstop, the stories flowing with increasing speed, as what was scheduled to be a 90-minute cup of coffee becomes an entire day.

"Look at this, Coach, this is the photo right here," Rudy says during a tour of his home that he unapologetically refers to as the "Rudy man cave."

The garage is decorated with photos from his playing days, including the three plays he participated in (a kickoff, an incomplete pass and the sack), as well as his one-year stint as a grad assistant under Devine. The centerpiece of his bedroom is a panoramic photo of Notre Dame Stadium the day the movie's game scenes were shot. The den is framed wall-to-wall with famous people, with letters from past U.S. presidents (Clinton, who screened "Rudy" at the White House, Obama and both Bushes), as well as pictures with everyone from Garth Brooks to Pete Rose. There's a framed Cigar Aficionado cover story in which Sylvester Stallone says Rudy's life is the perfect metaphor for his own.

But the image Rudy is drawn to the most is from 2012, with him alongside Brown, Bettis and Montana.

"Those guys ... I'm good with those guys," Rudy says. "I'm good with Joe Montana. We talked and we're good," he said. He lists off sportswriters, ESPN commentators and former teammates who aren't Rudy believers, careful to counter each with the names of people who are. "They try to cheapen what 'Rudy' means to people. That wasn't what Joe was trying to do, but he did it. Then he was surprised at how big of a deal this little movie still is to people. But we talked. We're good now."

As Rudy talks ... and talks ... and talks ... one realizes that this 71-year-old is very much the same kid who used to sit outside the admissions office at Notre Dame knowing full well he wasn't getting in. He's still a kid from Joliet. He's abrasive, profane and won't take no for an answer. "This is just me, Coach, and being me has worked out. So why the hell would I change that?"

"Rudy attacks everything in his life, every conversation, every meeting, every business deal, with the same fire that he attacked me in practice every day," DiNardo says, laughing. "Some people don't know how to handle him. So they push back. I suppose if it makes them feel better to tell people he lived in the basketball arena next to Notre Dame Stadium and not in the stadium itself, well, good for them.

"I'm not exaggerating when I say that Rudy was everywhere, all the time."

He still is. The tour of his house concludes with a look at the Rudy-branded boat in his driveway, the vessel used by his teenage son's high school bass fishing team. The drive to pick up his son from that school includes phone chats with a lawyer, a contact person for his next speaking engagement and his daughter, a Boston Conservatory student, who performed alongside her father in his Broadway show. There's also a stop by the home/office of ex-wife Cheryl Ruettiger, who lives only a few miles away and still oversees a large chunk of his life as the executive director of his foundation and president of his business. Her passion for his story is well-known to anyone who has dared try to do her ex-husband wrong.

But it is Rudy's fire that still remains the most striking, even to those who try to question his truths. It has been almost 50 years since he arrived in South Bend determined to make it onto the Notre Dame football team. Even now, sitting in a high school carpool pickup lane, he thinks of Siskel's death and all that followed, and a tear rolls down his face. A face that is once again turning a slight tinge of rage red.

"Let me tell you something, Coach. There are two kinds of people. There are the ones who believe in your dreams and there are the ones who think it's their job to crush those dreams. You know what? Let the a--holes pick on whatever they want to pick on. If it makes them happy to say no one laid a jersey down on Dan Devine's desk or that the whole team didn't carry me off the field, hey, whatever, man. But every single day I've got people coming up to me, thanking me for bringing a little something to their lives. A couple of hours of inspiration to their lives. Veterans and kids and people dying of cancer. You know what? I'll take those people over the joy stealers. My people outnumber the joy stealers a thousand to one."

Rudy wipes the tear away quickly.

"And that's the truth."

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