In addition to being a legend on the football field, I’m a prolific essayist and cultural critic. My specialty is re-examining sports movies and documentaries from the past and then telling the hard truths about the messages those movies send. Let’s start with the 1993 film Rudy.
I hate Rudy. I’ve probably watched the movie two dozen times in my life because I don’t really watch non-football movies, and I get angrier and angrier with every viewing. If you haven’t seen Rudy, let me bring you up to speed in a single sentence: Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, a shitty athlete from Joliet, Illinois with bad grades and a disrespectful attitude toward his father and brother, somehow ends up walking on at Notre Dame in the 1970’s, sits in the dark and cries while holding a Notre Dame jacket, makes some meaningless tackle at the end of a game he never should have played in, and gets carried off the field.
I could write an entire book about the problems with Rudy—the shameless fetishization of Notre Dame, portraying Rudy’s teacher as the “bad guy” for not letting Rudy crash a bus trip to Notre Dame for serious students, making a Notre Dame student seem heartless when she kicks Rudy out of the helmet-painting club (LOL) for lying about being a student, and portraying Dan Devine as a villain for actually doing his job (trying to win) and not wanting to play some walk-on loser who sucks. The list goes on and on. But today, I want to address the most disturbing aspect of Rudy’s personality.
Anyone who played high school football almost certainly played with someone like Rudy. And we all hated him. He’s the guy who shouts while lifting weights. He shows up to early-morning summer workouts and claims it’s his “favorite part of the day.” He asks the coach if the team can run extra gassers at the end of practice. He stays out on the practice field for an extra hour hitting the blocking sled. He tries to be a “coach on the field” and yells at his teammates for “not playing through the whistle.” He makes a dramatic show of hitting his helmet in frustration when he misses a tackle, which is pretty much every play. He always has the defensive playbook under his arm and reads it alone at lunch. He makes awkward attempts to be friends with the coaches. But above all, he absolutely sucks as a football player and has no hope of ever contributing on the field.
In a just world, there would be no Rudys. High school coaches would have the ability and the willingness to run these losers off before they have a chance to poison practices with their earnestness and “hustling.” But we do not live in a just world. We live in a world where this kind of behavior is not only tolerated, but celebrated. And the most shining example of that is Rudy.
There are countless examples of this nonsense in the movie, but one scene in particular stands out. It’s Notre Dame’s last practice of the season, and as best I can tell, the third string offense is scrimmaging against the scout team defense. In other words, who really gives a shit? It’s a time to go through the motions and get done with practice. Instead, Rudy decides to act like Billy Badass and goes blowing through the line at full speed. He tackles running back Jamie O’Hara, portrayed by Vince Vaughn. If Hollywood had any sense of fairness, O’Hara would have kicked Rudy’s ass on the spot, and Notre Dame’s head coach, Ara Parseghian, would have thrown Rudy off the team for good.
That doesn’t happen. Instead, Parseghian self-righteously lectures O’Hara about his own lack of hustle and Rudy’s “heart.” He then unjustly demotes O’Hara to the “prep team” for doing the right thing.
It’s a scene that makes me shake with rage during every viewing. It has, however, had some practical value. I show Rudy to my youth football team every year and explain that if any of them act like Rudy, they’ll be forced to wade through the copperhead-infested creek in the woods behind the football field. If Ara Parseghian had done the same, Notre Dame might have more than one national championship since the ‘70s.