“It happened so fast. The student body starting chanting the name Rudy and then some of the players,” recalled Ruettinger about his brief but glorious time on the field. “Because of all that preparation that I did, that moment paid off. I waited 27 years for those 27 seconds.
“Our dreams either become real or we lose them. Just stepping on the field at Notre Dame was enough for me. It was not so much the tackle or playing but the journey just to get there in that moment.”
Rudy journeys to Mt. Juliet on Saturday where he and Notre Dame alumni Ross Browner will be grand marshals of the Mt. Juliet Christmas Parade at 11 a.m. Browner, a two-time All-American for the Fighting Irish, played 10 years in the NFL and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
Rudy, now 62, was 27 when he got into the game of his life. He has no spot in any hall of fame but occupies a place in many, many hearts. He travels the country as a motivational speaker and will make about 75 appearances this year, but only in two parades: the Rose Bowl Parade and the Mt. Juliet Christmas Parade.
The message he delivers? “I think when people leave (after hearing his story) they have a sense, a feeling of hope that it is possible. They can redirect their energy and their attitude and that changes things and gives them hope that they can do it.
“I’m just a little guy, no different than the guy walking down the street. I don’t look at myself as a celebrity. The message is the celebrity—that’s the deal,” Rudy said.
As for those who inspired him most in his life, the Joliet, Ill., native answers, “My parents. They raised 14 of us. They were pretty instrumental in how they built our character. . . . I admire a lot of common people who have inspired me with they’ve done in their lives.”
Rudy served in the Navy before he went to Holy Cross Junior College for two years and then transferred to Notre Dame. He paid for part of his college education via the G.I. Bill.
In the fall of 1974 he was a walk-on for Coach Ara Parseghian’s staff. His senior year Dan Devine took over as head coach. During that last game on the last play, it all finally paid off for Rudy.
“Once you commit to something, you need to stick to it. I leaned that other opportunities come by not quitting. I learned that by being in the U.S. Navy after high school. … I learned through that process that there is another avenue for you to take. Listen to your intuition. I wouldn’t quit. It didn’t make sense to quit. I had come this far,” said Rudy, who lives in Henderson, Nev., with his wife of 16 years and their two children.
A champion boxer via an intramural tournament on the Notre Dame campus, he claims “Rocky,” “Hoosiers” and “Field of Dreams” among his favorite sports movies.
Almost three years ago, the Rudy Foundation created the Rudy Award Program to benefit children’s advocacy programs. The first College Football Rudy Award was held Jan. 8, 2008, at the Opryland Hotel.
The award was designed to honor Division I football players who demonstrate what Rudy refers to as the Four C’s: character, courage, contribution and commitment.
One of his favorite athletes is the guy who will be sharing grand marshal duties with him Saturday.
“Ross (Browner) was a wonderful teammate. He always encouraged you to keep going. He was a big-time influence in my life, and when I got to play, he was one of the first to say, ‘Way to go Rudy.’ He’s a big guy with a big heart,” said Rudy, a little guy with a big heart, indeed.
“You’re 5-foot-nothin’, 100 and nothin’, and you have nearly a speck of athletic ability. And you hung in there with the best college football team in the land for two years. And you’re getting a degree from the University of Notre Dame. In this life, you don’t have to prove nothin’ to nobody but yourself.”-- Fortune (portrayed by Charles S. Dutton) speaking to Rudy in the movie “Rudy”