The True Story Of Rudy Ruettiger — The Notre Dame Football Legend Behind ‘Rudy’

Published July 23, 2023
Updated August 8, 2023

Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger overcame poverty, dyslexia, his diminutive stature, and three rejections from Notre Dame before becoming a legend among the Fighting Irish.

Rudy Ruettiger

Taro Yamasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images Rudy Ruettiger in the stands at Notre Dame in 1993 to promote the film Rudy, which is based on his story.

The crowd at Notre Dame went wild. On the field, a 5’6″ defensive end had just sacked the opposing quarterback — resulting in a thrilling victory for the Fighting Irish. At least, that’s how the film about Rudy Ruettiger’s unlikely college football career ends. But what’s the true story behind the classic 1993 sports film Rudy.

The real-life Rudy Ruettiger had long aspired to play football for the University of Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish was the favorite team of his father, a miner who respected hard work.

As chronicled in Rudy, Ruettiger struggled to overcome financial and physical hurdles in pursuit of his goal. Because of his dyslexia and small frame, acceptance into the University of Notre Dame seemed like a lofty dream.

But in real life, just as in the movie, Rudy Ruettiger never gave up. He studied hard and displayed intense dedication. In the end, this poor boy from the outskirts of Chicago became a Notre Dame legend — and a compelling motivational speaker and author once his days on the gridiron were done.

This is the true story of Rudy Ruettiger and the real-life heroics behind Rudy.

Rudy Ruettiger’s Dream Of Playing Football At Notre Dame

Rudy Ruettiger As A Boy

RUDY International / FacebookRudy Ruettiger (bottom right) as a schoolboy in Joliet, Illinois.

Born on August 23, 1948, in Joliet, Illinois, Daniel Eugene Ruettiger grew up in a lower-middle-class family on the outskirts of Chicago.

The third of 14 children, he learned to love football from his father, a hardworking miner. His family’s weekly gatherings around the television to watch Notre Dame football not only marked a bright spot in Ruettiger’s childhood but also birthed his lifelong dream to join the team.

At Joliet Catholic High School, Ruettiger was a poor student but a promising athlete. He was a terrific cornerback during his junior and senior seasons, garnering more tackles than anyone on his team. Despite weighing a scrawny 165 pounds, his high school success made him even more determined to play for Notre Dame.

An interview with Rudy Ruettiger.

However, Ruettiger’s five-foot-six-inch frame and yet-undiagnosed dyslexia created physical and academic hurdles. After he graduated high school, his football dreams felt entirely out of reach. Instead, Ruettiger enlisted in the United States Navy in 1968. He served two tours at sea during the Vietnam War.

Returning home with his newfound G.I. Bill benefits, Ruettiger successfully enrolled at Indiana’s Holy Cross College in 1972. There, Ruettiger learned that if he got all A’s, he could try to transfer to Notre Dame after four semesters.

That’s what he did. Officially diagnosed with dyslexia, Ruettiger worked hard toward his goal. He studied to improve his grades and worked a groundskeeper job on the nearby Notre Dame campus. From his spare room in the basketball arena, he continuously applied to get in.

After three disheartening rejections, Rudy Ruettiger was accepted in 1974 and became an official Notre Dame man.

The True Story Behind The Beloved Film Rudy

Rudy Ruettiger’s life at Notre Dame would be well-documented in the uplifting 1993 Hollywood hit Rudy and complemented by his 2012 autobiography, Rudy: My Story.

But Ruettiger’s success was hard-won. Once he’d been accepted to Notre Dame, it took tremendous effort for Ruettiger to even get accepted onto the Notre Dame scout team, which helps the varsity team practice.

Coaches took notice. Notre Dame head coach Ara Parseghian not only encouraged walk-on players like Ruettiger but was well aware that sheer will can often triumph over lack of experience.

A clip from Rudy showing Coach Fortune, who was based on Coach Merv Johnson, teaching Rudy a lesson.

And Coach Merv Johnson proved essential in coaching Rudy Ruettiger from fledgling scout member to an official part of the team. During Ruettiger’s last few months as a student in his senior year the new head coach, Dan Devine, gave him a chance to shine.

Although Parseghian had promised Ruettiger an opportunity to play on the field, the coach stepped down after the 1974 season. His replacement, Devine had made no such promise. But he understood how much it would mean to Ruettiger.

On November 8, 1975, as Notre Dame battled Georgia Tech, Devine told Ruettiger to get ready. It was the first and last time that he would step onto the field during an official game.

At first, Ruettiger failed to tackle quarterback Rudy Allen — but then rammed him to the ground during the very final play.

True Story Of The Movie Rudy

Notre Dame/Collegiate Images/Getty ImagesRuettiger (#45) being carried off the field at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

The crowds roared as Ruettiger’s teammates carried him off the field on their shoulders. Not only had Rudy Ruettiger’s dreams been realized — but he’d become a Notre Dame legend. And Hollywood took notice.

According to Ruettiger himself, the movie (in which he appears as a fan during the last scene) was 92 percent accurate.

Rudy Ruettiger Being Carried Off The Field

Notre DameAfter Rudy Ruettiger tackled the opposing quarterback on November 8, 1975, his teammates lifted him onto their shoulders and carried him off the field.

Rudy Ruettiger’s Life As An Author And Speaker After Notre Dame

After cementing his legend at Notre Dame, Ruettiger went on to launch a successful career as a motivational speaker, author, and owner of Rudy Beverage, Inc. However, Ruettiger was charged with securities fraud in 2011 for an alleged pump-and-dump scheme. He later admitted that greed led him down the path of crime, which he regretted.

Rudy Ruettiger And Sean Astin

RUDY International / FacebookRudy Ruettiger and Sean Astin, star of the film Rudy, in 2021.

Ultimately, however, Rudy Ruettiger remains a beloved icon of determination and triumph to this day. He has been awarded honorary degrees from several universities, given the key to the city by numerous municipalities across the country, and was recognized by presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and even given the chance to speak at the White House.

From his boyhood in Illinois to his heroics at Notre Dame to his speeches at the White House, Rudy Ruettiger has inspired countless people around the world and shows no signs of slowing down.

After learning about Rudy Ruettiger, read the true stories behind other real-life heroes featured in classic sports movies, like Frank Dux from Bloodsport and James J. Braddock from Cinderella Man.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Cite This Article
Margaritoff, Marco. "The True Story Of Rudy Ruettiger — The Notre Dame Football Legend Behind ‘Rudy’.", July 23, 2023, Accessed April 20, 2024.