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'Rudy' still an inspiration to many

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Upon arriving at Berry Hills Country Club for a speaking engagement at The Marshall University Quarterback Club of Charleston's annual golf tournament on Thursday night, Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger wanted to know just one thing.

"Where is Ben Affleck? I heard he was supposed to be here, that's why I came."

While Affleck or his actress/George Washington High School alum wife Jennifer Garner weren't actually scheduled to make an appearance, Ruettiger was, and he was the main attraction.

And though he may have been a bit disappointed not to have the chance to meet any of Hollywood's brightest stars, he said he jumped at the opportunity to appear at a Thundering Herd event.

"When I heard it was Marshall I said 'I'll be there,' " Ruettiger said. "[The 1970 Marshall football team's plane crash] is a national historical moment of athletics. It's very interesting to come to a place where people have been through so much and see what they're doing today. It's always fascinating to me to meet different cultures."

Marshall's story is forever documented in a movie called "We Are Marshall," and if anyone knows a bit about inspirational sports films, it's Ruettiger.

An undersized Notre Dame walk-on in 1974-1975 who primarily played with the scout team, Ruettiger, through hard work and perseverance, finally earned a shot at glory in his last home game as a senior.

The 5-foot-6, 185-pound defensive end played three plays against Georgia Tech and recorded a sack - the only statistic in his Notre Dame career stat line - before becoming the first of only two Fighting Irish players to ever be carried off the field (Nov. 8, 1975). The other was fullback Mark Edwards in 1995.

Ruettiger's story inspired the movie "Rudy," starring Sean Astin in the title role. October will mark 20 years since the film's release and was received to mostly positive reviews and is consistently listed among the best sports movies of all time.

While the movie is based on Ruettiger's life, there are some fallacies, for example the role of Notre Dame coach Dan Devine.

In the movie, Devine is cast as an antagonist of sorts, having to be convinced to let Ruettiger even dress in his final game, much less play. On the silver screen, it took a magic chanting of his name by teammates and the crowd to get him into the game.

 In reality, it was Devine who came up with the idea to let Ruettiger dress and there was no magical chant.

But Ruettiger said anyone focusing on the historical accuracy of the film is missing the point.

"It changed my life," Ruettiger said of the film. "We didn't focus on what really, really happened. It wasn't important. It important to focus on the journey and the moment. It transcends sports and that was our goal. That's why 'Rudy' people keep watching over and over.

"Sports is one thing. There's a lot to learn from sports but at the same time - life - how to handle difficulty, how to build yourself up and go after what you believe in, all of these things are important to people who sometimes lose sight and start believing in what they can't do instead of what they can do, what they should be instead of what they want to be."

While Ruettiger getting carried off the field may have been the pinnacle of the film, the real-life Rudy, with the help of exposure from the film, has continued to push for more since his college days.

His website, www.rudyintl.com, details some of his current work, much of which comes in the form of motivational speaking.

Ruettiger said he makes 75 or more public-speaking appearances every year.

"I do a lot of corporate engagements but these are more of an honor for me to do," Ruettiger said. "I want to keep giving people hope and keep giving back. I want to pay it forward, show gratitude, and have that kind of message."

Along with his wife Cheryl, Ruettiger in 1977 founded The Rudy Foundation, which the website describes as a "nonprofit organization dedicated to the support and recognition of those who aspire to fulfill their dreams through character, courage, contribution and commitment."

The foundation gave out an award to a college and a high school athlete that exemplified such characteristics but stopped in 2010 to pursue a new direction.

"We're really focused on developing the youth because they're they future," Ruettiger said. "We haven't [given out the awards] in the past couple of years because of the kids. We kind of switched gears. We saw more kids that needed development so we went in that direction."

The last college player to receive the award was Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich in 2010. Herzlich was a first-team All-America selection and the ACC defensive player of the year in 2008 before being forced to sit out all of 2009 with Ewing's Sarcoma, a form of bone cancer.

He returned for a successful senior season in 2010 and, after going undrafted, signed with the New York Giants on July 26, 2011 and made his first start on Nov. 20 of that year against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Herzlich is still listed as a middle linebacker on New York's current depth chart.

Such stories are what Ruettiger said he hopes the movie and his life continue to inspire.

"I hope we get back to giving out the college award because that is fun," Ruettiger said. "I'll never forget giving the award to his [Herzlich's] father and the gratitude he had."

Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, ryan.pritt@wvgazette.com, or follow him at twitter.com/Rpritt.

 


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