Grantland logo

A Dad Through the Lens of ‘Rudy’

The American Film Institute picked ‘Rudy’ as the 54th-most inspiring movie of all time, and that’s about 53 spaces lower than it should be.

I have seen my father cry three times.

The first time was when his own dad died. I was 12 years old. He sat my sisters and me down in the living room and told us what had happened, and I couldn’t think of anything to say or do, so I didn’t say anything or do anything; I just sat there, messy hair and big teeth. My sisters, 10 and 6, did the same. It was the first time someone in our family had died, and so we were all a little confused, I guess, and definitely also unaware of the way death reverberates out to those near it. So we were all just sort of looking at him. And he didn’t cry then — he told us, then looked at us, then waited a minute, then stood up and walked off.

He cried at the funeral.

It wasn’t a big cry. It wasn’t a breakdown cry. Nobody had to hold him down. He wasn’t Sean Penn in Mystic River. It was a measured cry. It was the one where, were it not for the few tears and slightly reddened eyes, you wouldn’t even know it was happening, like Omar in The Wire after Bunk talked to him. But that was the first time I saw him cry.

The second time I saw him cry was when we watched Rudy. And the third time was when we watched Rudy again.

Rudy is great. It’s a true-story movie about this guy named Daniel Ruettiger who dreams of going to Notre Dame and playing football for Notre Dame. Only thing is, he’s too poor and too not-smart-enough to attend Notre Dame, and he’s too small and too unathletic to make the team. Lo, through perseverance and diligence, he manages to wiggle his way into school at ND after doing well at a nearby junior college, and then he makes the practice squad, too, because he plays football like his body is powered by a nuclear reactor and also probably because it would’ve been a pretty crappy movie had he not. When ESPN.com ran a reader-based poll to decide the 25 overall best sports movies, Rudy landed at fourth, and that’s about right. The American Film Institute picked it as the 54th-most inspiring movie of all time, and that’s about 53 spaces lower than it should be.

Vince Vaughn is in the movie a little bit (he plays a tall bust of a QB prospect), and Jon Favreau is also in it (he’s Rudy’s chubby friend), and that was three years before Swingers came out, so technically, I think, Swingers is actually Swingers II.

Sean Astin plays Rudy, and I don’t know that anyone has ever been a better underdog than Sean Astin. He was the Little Brother Underdog in The Goonies. He was the Too Smart Nerd Underdog in White Water Summer (which is a truly underappreciated movie). He was the Defiant Teenager Underdog in Toy Soldiers (another quietly classic film). He was the Unpopular High School Senior Underdog in Encino Man. He was the Hobbit Underdog in the Lord of the Rings franchise. On and on and on times infinity.

When I started writing this, I called my dad. I explained to him that I’d just watched the Student/Athlete 30 for 30 short, and then I told him the story. I told him how there was this real small guy who dreamt of playing football at Notre Dame, and he tried out and didn’t make it, but then he tried out again and made it, and he eventually went on to become this kind of, as they explain in Student/Athlete, folk hero. “Like Rudy,” he said. That’s right, I said, except this guy was a kicker, and he played in a bunch of games and actually had an impact beyond becoming an underrated inspirational movie. He was so small that he had to figure out some special way to kick the ball to get it to go farther, and he used to practice in a parking lot because he didn’t have access to a lit field and goalposts. “But still like Rudy,” he said. So I asked him what was it about Rudy that made him cry, and he didn’t pretend that he hadn’t cried during it, which is what I was half-expecting. Here is the conversation that followed, along with one brief parenthetical note partway through.

Dad: Just that he finally got to do what he’d been dreaming of. Everyone was calling his name and cheering for him. Remember he would sit in the stands during the game? He worked real hard. He was determined. I liked that about him.

Me: Me too. Was there something that you saw of yourself in him, maybe something you always wanted, like the way he always wanted to play for Notre Dame?

Dad: Yes.

(I have had 1,000 conversations with my dad, and there’s always at least one part where I ask him something, and he responds with only either “yes” or “no” and then that’s it — even though there should definitely be more that comes after it. Answering questions without actually answering them is a critical Dad Skill, I think. It’s up there with Dad Strength and Dad Reflexes.)

Me: What was it?

Dad: To be a fighter pilot.

Me: Really? That’s a good one. Wait, you were in the Army. Did you try to become a fighter pilot?

Dad: No.

Me: Why not?

Dad: I was trying to make it through the Army.

I have three sons now. Two of them are twins, and one of them is a baby. The twins are 7 and the baby is 2 years old, so I think that actually maybe makes him a toddler and not a baby, but I’m not sure. In the seven years the twins have known me, they’ve not see me cry yet. But we’ve also not watched Rudy together.

Being a fighter pilot sounds like a cool job.