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Hollywood Gets an Irish Legend

How would you like to make a movie about the following? The “hero” 1) is a mediocre high school football player; 2) works four years in a steel mill; 3) dreams of starring for the Notre Dame football team despite the fact he is a) small; b) slow; c) not strong; 4) does not have the grades and is dyslexic and has trouble reading; 5) has his girlfriend give up on him and marry his brother.

No, we’re not talking about “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” This guy is for real.

Well, you can see where this flick is not going to be “Navy Blue and Gold,” “Knute Rockne, All-American,” “The Spirit of Notre Dame” or even “One Minute to Play.” There’s no part for Ronald Reagan in here.

This is not George Gipp on his deathbed. This is not one of the Four Horsemen. This guy does not shake-down-the-thunder-from-the-sky.

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This is the story of Rudy Ruettiger. No Heisman winner. Don’t look for him to have his portrait in the team dining room. Don’t look down any All-American rosters.

He played 27 seconds for Notre Dame. He did not run for the touchdown that beat Army. He is not “One-Play” O’Brien. Six-Yard Sitko. He is just a kind of complicated tackling dummy. He works with the Meat Squad, the practice-field sacrificial lambs. He doesn’t even sit with the team on game days. He’s in the seats, cheer-cheering for old Notre Dame like any other student. He’s the leprechaun of the practice field. He never gets to touch the ball in his whole career.

So, you’re going to make a movie out of that? You’re going to compete with the marquee films featuring Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Robert Redford, Julia Roberts?! Let’s face it. “Gone With the Wind,” it’s not.

You know how Hollywood football films like to be. Dating back to the days when Richard Arlen was the star halfback and Toby Wing was the cheerleader. They were nice fairy-tales where our hero runs the winning touchdown back with one minute to play, he clinches with the girl and we fade out to the soundtrack of Irving Berlin tunes written for the occasion or the school’s fight song.

Well, in a way “Rudy” is formulaic. It has a happy ending. It surely has suspense, drama. It doesn’t have any bedroom scenes. You can bring the kids. It’s as wholesome as “The Sound of Music.”

It’s sure-fire in a way. The good guy wins in the end. But he doesn’t win one for the Gipper.

He wins one for every fourth-stringer who ever played the game. He wins one for every guy who dreamed impossible dreams and, even if they came through only in the fashion of guys who tilted at windmills, they show the importance of having the dreams. As the poet tells us, “I must have my dreams if I must live.”

Rudy is a Notre Dame hero, make no mistake about that. He didn’t run the 40 in 4.3, he didn’t have a rifle arm, swivel hips. But he spent three years eating the mud of the Notre Dame practice field, wiping blood from his nose, soaking his tender ribs, getting knocked down by the lordly types on their way to becoming Chicago Bears or Pittsburgh Steelers.

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It’s oddly encouraging, uplifting. You rise out of your seat cheering for him. It is, as the producer insists, a story of hope.

I thought it was the worst idea for a movie I’d ever heard. But, my track record is not good in that regard. I am the guy who once told Frank McCarthy when he was espousing the idea of making the movie “Patton,” that it, too, was a terrible idea.

“Rudy” is the antithesis of the George Gipp story. Gipp was a gifted athlete who didn’t particularly want to be. Rudy is a non-athlete who would give half his life to be one. The question is begged: Who is the real hero? The guy who rolls out of bed with the ability to run, throw, kick or hit a ball? Or the guy who rolls out of bed with the ability to fumble but rises above it?

The real life (and the cinematic) Rudy had plenty of chances to chuck it in. His father, a hard hat with a head to match, lays it on the line early: “Notre Dame is not for the likes of us,” he tells his dreamer son. “It’s for rich kids, smart kids, kids who are great athletes.”

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Rudy is heartsick but keeps his dreams intact. When he sees a close friend incinerated in a steel-mill flameout, he decides to buck the odds.

What follows is extraordinarily moving, cinematically deft, as uplifting as Bambi. Because it’s a true story, it has no improbable fade-outs, merely the realization of a dream within credible limits. The real Rudy has long striven to bring his travails to the screen because he thinks it’s the part of the Notre Dame story you don’t see from the press box. The lesson is taught that not all the fighters of the so-called Fighting Irish are on the two-yard line with the ball. It’s a story of the Fifth Horseman. Every guy who ever lived out his dream as cannon fodder honing the skills of the guys who lived the legend gets his day in the sun here.

I haven’t recommended a picture since I predicted an Academy Award for “Chariots of Fire” all those years ago. This may not be an Oscar film, but it’s as close to it as you’d want to be. Go see it. It’ll do you good.


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