By Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor J. Michael Whalen
"Rudy" (1993; rated PG)
Stars: Sean Astin, Ned Beatty
Director: David Anspaugh
Writer: Angelo Pizzo
CHFF Rating:
(= punt; = safety; = field goal; = touchdown)
People love an underdog. Whether it's New England defeating St. Louis and its so-called "Greatest Show on Turf" in the first post-9/11 Super Bowl or the mostly overrated "Rocky" films that Sylvester Stallone has turned into a franchise – to which a sixth installment reportedly will be added – there's just something about a person or group overcoming the odds that makes most of us feel all warm and bubbly. In that sense, a good underdog tale is almost as good as beer, which makes everybody feel all warm and bubbly.
The 1993 release "Rudy" is based on the true story of Daniel E. "Rudy" Ruettiger, the ultimate underdog. An undersized wannabe who dreamed of playing football for Notre Dame, Ruettiger had to overcome the longest of odds to make that dream come true.
In addition to being much smaller than the prototypical college player (the real-life Rudy was just 5-6, 165 pounds), he had to face the fact that his grade point average in high school was somewhat less than extraordinary – due, in large part, to his undiagnosed dyslexia – before he could even think about attending Notre Dame, let alone playing for the team. The lack of support from his family, including his father (played by Beatty with Everyman aplomb), didn't help his cause.
"Rudy" is a great movie to watch if you need a pick-me-up, but on certain levels it doesn't work. Because the script focuses solely on Ruettiger's desire to play for his favorite team, it gets to a point where his obsession seems borderline creepy, almost as if Rudy is a stalker and the Fighting Irish are a group of sorority babes he's targeting for attack. (In order to attend Notre Dame, he actually leaves behind his girlfriend, played by the always-great Lili Taylor.) And, as you might expect, some unnecessary Hollywood touches are added and some facts are stretched, as if the storyline isn't compelling enough to begin with.
These are some of the more notable changes to the real-life script:
  • The incredulity of Rudy's family was manufactured for the movie; in fact, Ruettiger's real-life family looked quite different than the one we see on film. Rudy's antagonist in the movie is his older brother, Frank, who constantly mocks his dreams, even prompting a barroom fight at one point between Frank and Rudy's pal, Pete. In real life, Rudy had two big sisters and was the oldest boy in a family of 14 children.
  • Pete is a boyhood friend of Rudy's in the movie. In real life, they met while working together as young adults at the power plant that plays a central role in the movie. But it is true that the death of Pete (whom Ruettiger called his soul mate) in June 1972 prompted the real-life Rudy to leave home and chase his dream of attending Notre Dame.
  • Real-life Ruettiger spent time in the Navy before picking up the power-plant job.
  • In the movie, it was Rudy's lifelong dream to play football for the Irish. Rudy's official Web site tells a different story, saying that it was his lifelong dream only to attend Notre Dame. The site says that once he transferred to the school in the fall of 1974 after two years at Holy Cross (chronicled well in the movie), "Rudy developed another dream to play football for the Fighting Irish. Rudy walked on the team ... in 1974."
  • In one of the most touching scenes in the movie, first-year Notre Dame coach Dan Devine is convinced to let Rudy play after every player on the team comes into his office one by one and turns in his jersey, asking that Rudy be dressed in his place. It never happened. However, teammates did speak with Devine on behalf of Rudy two days before the final home game of the year. The coach was convinced, and he let Ruettiger dress for the Georgia Tech game
  • In the movie, one of the captains is named Roland Steele. No player by that name has ever played for Notre Dame. In fact, Notre Dame's captains in 1975 were offensive tackle Ed Bauer and linebacker Jim Stock.
  • Rudy gets into the game as teammates and fans chant his name. According to an interview with Ruettiger available in the "Rudy" DVD, he asked the coaches to put him in the game and the fans chanted after he made his big play.

Though imperfect, the shining moments are many. The music from Jerry Goldsmith's score swells in many of the film's most "dramatic" scenes, while Astin brings a needed fresh-faced innocence to the lead role. His charming performance somehow makes it all work. It's also fun to see how Rudy eventually does receive needed support along the way, from sources as diverse as a kindly priest (Robert Prosky), a no-nonsense groundskeeper (Charles S. Dutton) and a socially awkward tutor (Jon Favreau). Dutton's mentoring groundskeeper represents another subtle stretch of the truth. The movie character was actually a compilation of three different people who aided and inspired Ruettiger at Notre Dame.

There are other nice touches, too, such as when a dejected Rudy walks away from Notre Dame's stadium, unable to secure a ticket to a game. The camera pulls back, with the hulking structure dwarfing our hero, as if it represents the mountain he must climb in order to achieve his nirvana.
Man, that's some deep shit.
Behind-the-Scenes Cold, Hard Football Facts:
  1. Anspaugh and Pizzo, the director and writer of "Rudy," had previously teamed up in 1986 to create another feel-good sports film: "Hoosiers." It starred Gene Hackman as a coach that took his small-town high school basketball team to the Indiana state championship.
  2. Goldsmith, who created Rudy's soaring film score, is one of the great composers in movie history. He wrote the music to classics such as "The Planet of the Apes," "Patton," "Chinatown," "Basic Instinct" and the Rambo/First Blood series, and he won his only Oscar for his work in "The Omen." Goldsmith died last year.
  3. Ruettiger's high school football team, Joliet Catholic, in Joliet, Ill., outside of Chicago, is currently one of the nation's dominant powers. The school ranks No. 4 this week on the USA Today super prep Top 25. (Joliet played a prominent role in another famous movie. Jake Blues, played by John Belushi, was fresh out of Joliet prison in the 1980 comedy classic "The Blues Brothers.")
  4. Astin is the only actor who has portrayed both a legendary football figure and a hobbit. He would go on to play Sam, Frodo's right-hand man, in director Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
  5. Ruettiger did not learn that he had dyslexia until it was discovered by a professor at Holy Cross, the junior college in South Bend that he attended for two years while trying to earn his way into Notre Dame.
  6. The climactic moment in Rudy's real-life story took place on the final play of a game against Georgia Tech on Nov. 8, 1975.
  7. In the final scene of the movie, the real Ruettiger can be seen among a group of fans cheering in the stands. He's the man who tugs on Beatty as Astin-as-Rudy is carried off the field in triumph.
  8. The footage of the climactic Georgia Tech-Notre Dame game was filmed on location at Notre Dame Stadium at halftime of a 1992 game against Boston College. The real-life crowd made for great footage, and the fans were prompted to cheer "Rudy, Rudy, Rudy" as the final scene of the movie was filmed.
  9. Dan Devine replaced Ara Parseghian and coached Notre Dame from 1975 to 1980. He led the Irish to a national title in 1977 and posted a 53-16-1 record. Devine was not happy with the fact that he was made into something of a Rudy-doubting antagonist in the film.
  10. Despite its flaws, "Rudy" is a touching film – so much so that it makes CHFF Chief Angry Troll Kerry J. Byrne weep like a little girl. Even though he'll take on hacks like CBS Sportsline's Pete Prisco without even flinching, he's really a softy at heart, folks – and that's a fact.

See the most recent CHFF review: "Brian's Song"