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Rudy, Touchdown Jesus & the Gipper

I must have seen the 1993 film, “RUDY,” starring Sean Astin (pre Lord of the Rings) at least 25 times all the while my son was growing up, until October 2011, when I was able to mark something else off my “bucket list.” More on that later…

“RUDY” is based on a true story about Rudy Ruettiger, a young man from a blue-collar family who dreams of playing football for the University of Notre Dame. Rudy refuses to let his small size and less-than-stellar grades discourage him as he perseveres in his studying enough to be accepted into Notre Dame after being enrolled at Holy Cross College. He ends up being a part of the practice football team, showing a committment and drive that ends up gaining the respect of the bigger and more talented first string. In practice, he gets knocked down, dragged, battered and bruised, but he keeps getting up for more. He never gives up. Ultimately, he is allowed to suit up as a member of the team for the last home game of his Senior year, and is on the field for a full 27 seconds of play. From that game in 1975 until last year’s 2012 season, Rudy Ruettiger has been the only player ever carried off the Notre Dame football team by his teammates.

What makes this movie so special to me is, once again, an ordinary person doing extraordinary things, succeeding against all odds. perseverance, loyalty, discipline, courage, moral fiber, character, strength – truly an inspiration to all of us who doubt our abilities and dismiss our dreams as unattainable.

Also, in the movie, the Notre Dame campus, shown through the seasons of Rudy working toward his dream, looked absolutely beautiful – the epitome of what a college campus should look like.

Is it any wonder that when I worked at a small, private college sponsored by the Congregation of Holy Cross – the same Congregation of Holy Cross that founded Notre Dame – I hoped that there would be some way to finally see an actual football game at Notre Dame and feel something of what Rudy wanted so much to be a part of. As it happens, Alumni who will not be using any of their season tickets sometimes offer these up for sale to the campuses sponsored by the Congregation of Holy Cross. I put my name in for any home game – preferably with one of the service academies – and as luck would have it, I was able to buy 4 tickets. Notre Dame vs. the Air Force Academy, early October, at Notre Dame. I was thrilled!!!

My husband got time off from his practice as I did from the college, and my son and his (now) fiancé from their jobs in the financial district of Manhattan, and we were off! The 10 hour drive to South Bend, Indiana from our home in NE PA was quite easy – all Interstate 80 until the last few miles off the exit, then to our within-walking-distance-to-the-campus hotel. We were tired but excited, so we got a map of the campus and started to explore.

The Golden Dome, Basilica of the Sacred Heart, ND Stadium, the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes – I could go on and on. The trees on campus were shades of gold, orange and crimson, and at night, the windows in the stone buildings called out in welcome. Breathtaking. The campus had me wishing I could do my undergraduate experience over, but this time, here at ND.

Two things that really stood out for us on this visit: the powerful sense of tradition that was everywhere, and even with tens of thousands of people on campus for the Thursday through Saturday festivities of a home football game weekend, everyone – and I mean everyone – was polite. My son, used to riding the PATH and subway every day, said, “I forgot how polite most people are.”

As for the game – the excitement was palpable, the seats small, the band swaggering, the gold helmets dazzling, the cries deafening. I got to be part of my first wave, which went around 4 times! I felt like a little kid on Christmas Day; what a thing to be part of! All of this was being overseen by Touchdown Jesus (Picture #2 above) at the far end of the stadium (actually, the Word of Life Mural on the wall of the Hesburgh Library).

At the end of the game, we witnessed the Air Force Academy Band play their alma mater at one end of the stadium (Picture #3), their team members standing quietly, listening, hands reaching out to the teammate next to them. The ND team ran down to this same spot, removed their helmets, and stood quietly behind the opposing team, together. This was repeated by the Notre Dame band and both teams at the opposite end of the field. This homage to each other’s institution was stunning in its humility and solidarity. Pure class on the field.

That day’s score didn’t matter, but what happened on the field, after the game, did.

It was easy to see how names like Knute Rockne, Rudy Ruettiger, and the Four Horsemen have been immortalized, and how “win one for the Gipper” and “Roo-dee (RUDY), Roo-dee” are chanted by so many when entering the stadium. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and for a few days, I was able to feel that spirit on campus and in the crowds.

Well done, Notre Dame.

Go Irish!

My thanks.

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