Three plays. Three defensive plays. That was all. The game was already effectively won with an insurmountable lead and two dozen seconds left to play. The three plays came and went. And that’s all there was to it. This was the sum total of playing time for an otherwise forgotten young man in the history of college football. It is the story of Daniel Eugene Ruettiger (Pictured in #45 jersey). But we all know him as “Rudy”.
Rudy was made known to us in the 1993 heart-warming tale of a young man from blue-collar roots with a dream to play football for the legendary University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Nothing in Rudy’s story would make him fitting for the elite Irish university or football team. He was lightweight and short in stature. He came from a financially strapped family of fourteen. He struggled with his studies due to dyslexia. And perhaps, most difficult, he endured constant discouragement from others that his dreams were folly and his destiny was humble and fixed. Rudy’s saga could very well have ended as a classic demoralizing tale of a young man who becomes prematurely old as he is deprived of hope, dreams, and purpose. That, however, is not the story we experience.
In fact, the story of Rudy Ruettiger defies expectation. After finishing a two-year stint as a yeoman in the Navy, Rudy fixed his sight on the next great chapter in his life. While working at a power plant (steel mill in the movie) he attended Holy Cross College in Indiana, a junior college, with the intention of improving his grades and transferring to Notre Dame. Grappling with the academic demands at Holy Cross, Rudy came to grips with his dyslexia and ultimately gained admission to Notre Dame. Once accepted, he worked with a groundskeeper at the university to help pay tuition, and won a spot on the Notre Dame scout team which prepares the starting team members for games. Aggressive, tenacious, and dauntless, Rudy was beaten, battered, but unbowed in his efforts to be a good team member. Simultaneously, he hoped to win a coveted spot on the team’s active roster.
While Rudy’s story could seem to be an unimpeded road to success based solely on the power of determination, there were innumerable obstacles he encountered. Poor grades delayed his acceptance to Notre Dame. Financial worries required him to tirelessly earn extra money for his schooling. Resentment by other Notre Dame team members who perceived him as a showboat trying to outshine them weighed heavily on him. His fiance left him for a resentful, sneering brother. His father pricked him when he grudgingly admitted that he considered his son socially, financially, academically, and athletically inferior to the standards of his beloved Notre Dame. With these various strains, Rudy Ruettiger had to do all in his power to keep his focus. Harsh reality wanted him to quit, to admit defeat, to become an old man in a young man’s body – an old man who has lost his dream and along with it, his meaning. It is a story with which we may all, in one way or another and at one time or another, relate.
And while Rudy’s fierce determination against daunting odds will be a focal message taken from his story, one cannot overlook the “agents of grace” along his journey. These are the figures who had a hand in guiding, shaping, inspiring, and even productively intimidating Rudy. A community college friend who picks up on and assists with his dyslexia. A coach who opens doors for an unlikely player with fire in his belly. A priest who provides spiritual solace and wisdom at critical moments. Players who advocate on his behalf. Family whose disbelief reinforces his stubborn tenacity. And a groundskeeper who provides backbone when it is needed most. In the midst of Rudy’s resolve, one mustn’t underestimate the thousand voices or actions that shaped him or paved his path.
Between his own steadfastness and the “agents of grace”, Rudy showed that his dream would not be denied. In the waning minutes of the film, we see his dogged drive pay off. He would suit up. He would, thanks to the support of his teammates and the unfairly vilified Coach Dan Devine, play in the last game of his last year against Georgia Tech. And Rudy would have three plays.
Three plays – a kickoff, an incomplete pass, and, the pinnacle of a defensive player’s achievements, a sack – would be the total of Rudy’s college football career for the University of Notre Dame. And as meager as three plays in a career may seem, it is clear what they truly meant. Rudy Ruettiger did not simply gain a spot on an extraordinary team or a seat at an impressive university. He gained his soul. He bet on the one thing that many told him was a sure loser – himself. And he won. Belief in what seems impossible, recognition of and responsiveness to the “agents of grace” in his life, and prayer (a rich part of his Catholic upbringing) led Rudy to victory. Walking away from this film and from Daniel Eugene “Rudy” Ruettiger’s true story, we are charged to ask ourselves two questions: If you had only three plays, how would you prepare for them? And how would you play?
Godspeed to the 2012 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team & all of their fans. May their dogged determination show them to be winners in what really matters before the game is even played…