Growing up, my older brother Oliver was my idol. Despite being 12 years my senior, Oliver — fully cognizant of my hero worship — made a habit of including me in some of his young adult activities whenever he could. One of the most memorable for me was when he brought me along with his college girlfriend to see Rudy when it was in theaters.
As a young Catholic kid already obsessed with sports, the movie spoke to me in a way that few others had up to that point in my life. So began a cycle of me watching a VHS copy of Rudy every month or so and fully buying into both the American sports dream (my dad’s response to my question about whether Rudy went on to play in the NFL knocked this buy in down a peg) and the mystique of Notre Dame football.
I’m not going to sit here and lie and say that I no longer enjoy Rudy as an adult, but there’s no question that time and age have removed some of the shine from the film. Part of that is because the real Rudy appears to be nowhere near as likable as the Sean Astin one. A bigger part is how almost inconceivably unlikable nearly every supporting character in the movie is.
You have the consummate movie heel in Rudy’s older brother, Frank, who hates Rudy because ... umm ... Rudy’s not as good at high school football as he was? We never really know why. There wasn’t a whole lot of character development with Frank. The writers decided they needed to juxtapose young Rudy with the biggest asshole in the world, and VOILÁ!: Frank, everybody.
You have Rudy’s first girlfriend who punishes Rudy for not wanting to get married at 19 by shacking up with another one of his older brothers the moment Rudy leaves for college.
You have the high school priest/teacher who tells his students that being a dreamer basically makes you a Nazi, and then tells Rudy to his face that he’s too stupid and poor to even be allowed to ride on a bus with the rest of his classmates and see Notre Dame’s campus.
But worst of all, you have Rudy’s father.
Now let me preface this evisceration by saying that the only information I could find about the real life Daniel Ruettiger Sr. was all stuff along the lines of “he wasn’t really that much of a dick and he actually supported Rudy.” To me, that only makes the character these monsters forced (Louisville’s own) Ned Beatty to portray that much worse.
It’s apparent that the character of Rudy’s dad isn’t intended to be a total heel. The writers attempt to portray him as this gruff, post-World War II dad who is yet another realistic doubter of the realization of a dream that was so unlikely a movie was made about it. Re-watching the film, though, this is much, much more than that.
Papa Ruettiger isn’t just a tough-love dad whose straightforward thinking makes Rudy’s climatic triumphant just a touch sweeter, he’s maybe the most unredeemable dick dad in cinematic history.
The exhibits begin accumulating less than five minutes into the movie ...
When I was probably 8 or 9-years-old, I remember having a talk with my mom about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Despite being destined for a sub-6-foot existence and despite not doing anything particularly well on the basketball court besides shooting, I told my mom that when I got older I was going to play in the NBA. Basketball was the weakest of the “big three” sports for me, a fact which broke my heart then and still breaks my heart now. It was also a fact that wasn’t going to keep me from dreaming the biggest of dreams; at least in elementary school.
I remember my mom’s reaction vividly, only because it was as jarringly realistic as the sweetest woman in the world could be.
She said: “I really hope you do, and I love watching you play basketball, but you have to understand that a very, very small number of people make it to the NBA.”
THAT is how you handle a child serving up a largely unrealistic dream that is technically still a possibility.
You know how you DON’T handle it? By hanging your head in shame, laughing in the kid’s fucking face and encouraging the rest of the family to follow suit.
Despite being born into a family that seems hellbent on pushing him closer and closer to suicide, Rudy grows up and plays high school football. He also finds a friend who appears to be the only decent human being in Joliet, Illinois, a clearcut sign that said friend is going to die an awful, fiery death. He does. But before that happens, he starts a bar fight with Rudy’s brother Frank because, as previously mentioned, Frank is the biggest asshole in the world. Rudy gets pulled into the scuffle, and it’s only then that Papa Ruettiger decides he needs to intervene.
This all leads to perhaps the least believable paternal moment in cinematic history:
Even as a child, this was the one moment in the movie that really bothered me.
There is nothing that explains Rudy’s dad’s actions in this scene. Nothing. He didn’t hear Rudy’s friend call Frank a “pussy.” Frank didn’t appear to be winning the fight, so you also can’t chalk up the dad’s praise to that. There is no angle whatsoever here that explains how this scene is resolved. A dad sees two of his sons engaged in an even scuffle, breaks it up, has one of the sons kicked out of the bar, praises the other, and then summarizes his actions by asking rhetorically, “don’t nothin’ ever change?”
Again ... WHAT!?
What does that comment even mean? What about the events that took place even remotely indicated that Frank is somehow superior to Rudy in the family hierarchy? Does this family base everything on who was better at high school football? If so, what an extremely tough break for the Ruettiger sisters. But probably par for the course.
As mentioned earlier, the one positive influence in Rudy’s life dies a horrifying death and Rudy promptly makes the easiest decision in the world to leave all these assholes behind and pursue his dream of getting into Notre Dame and playing football for the Fighting Irish. His dad, of course, shows up at the bus stop to make one last ditch effort to convince his son to abandon his dreams and live out his remaining days under a dark cloud of frustration and unfulfillment. You know, the way dads are supposed to do.
Papa Ruettiger tells the story of his own father, who came to America to follow his ambition of becoming a dairy farmer. He bought a bunch of cows that all died, and then he promptly abandoned his entire family. The lesson in all this isn’t “we should all try to learn from the mistakes of our parents” or even “I’m doing the best I can despite not having a father figure of my own to learn from,” it’s — AND THIS IS A DIRECT QUOTE:
Chasing a stupid dream causes you and everyone around you nothing but heartache.
This man is a first generation immigrant who has built a life for himself that he seems at least moderately proud of. He’s lived through the American triumph of World War II, and has to have at least a base knowledge of his country’s history. He’s thrown all that experience into a blender and produced a life axiom of: The worst thing in life you can do is even make the slightest attempt to achieve the thing that would provide you with the most fulfillment.
He then reminds Rudy one more time that he’s dumb and sucks at sports before Rudy makes the simplest choice anyone has ever had to make and gets on the bus. His dad sits on the bench stunned that his failsafe pitch somehow failed to land.
Rudy makes the trek to South Bend without a plan because Lord knows that’s a skill he never had a shot of learning at home. He can’t get into Notre Dame but enrolls at neighboring Holy Cross junior college with the hope of achieving grades sparkling enough to gain admission to his dream school at some point down the road.
After busting his ass, sleeping on a custodian’s cot and befriending Jon Favreau, Rudy heads home for Christmas excited to tell his family about all his adventures in South Bend. Papa, naturally, refuses to get his fat ass out of his recliner to say hello to the son he hasn’t seen in four months.
When Rudy approaches his dad and provides him with tangible proof that he has achieved an A and three B’s at a level of education that no other member of the family has even come close to approaching, his dad reacts to the news with the level of enthusiasm and pride that we’ve all come to expect from Daddy Ruettiger by this point.
Rudy then finds out that the girl he was supposed to marry is now boinking his brother and decides to leave the unhealthiest house in America to spend the holidays alone in Indiana. Literally no one tries to stop him. His dad looks on from the recliner and decides the fatherly move in that moment is to not stand up or say anything.
Back in South Bend, Rudy goes through hell to try and turn his dream into a reality. After multiple rejections and a hilarious rope trip during a training montage, he gets into Notre Dame. Tears are shed, dramatic music is played, and Rudy now gets to head home and shove his crowning achievement squarely in his dad’s stupid fat fucking face. He does.
Rudy’s dad opens the Notre Dame acceptance leader with a dismissive attitude that indicates he’s somehow under the assumption that his son traveled all the way home to proudly present him with a letter that contained news of yet another failure. SHOCKINGLY, the news is actually good.
The greatest achievement in the history of the Ruettiger family is celebrated by the family patriarch for approximately eight seconds before he asks Rudy if he wants to spend the next couple of weeks working in the deathtrap mill that murdered his only friend. Rudy says he can’t. He’s got to get back to school because walk-on tryouts for the Notre Dame football team are coming up.
Rudy’s dad — WHO LITERALLY JUST FOUND OUT THAT HIS SON ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING HE HAD PREVIOUSLY BELIEVED TO BE IMPOSSIBLE — is immediately embarrassed that he was momentarily proud of his child.
Rudy goes back to school, makes the Notre Dame practice squad, gets his shit kicked in on a daily basis, and makes a mortal enemy out of young Vince Vaughn.
Despite having indisputable evidence that his kid somehow managed to work his way into one of America’s most prestigious academic institutions, Rudy’s dad refuses to believe his son’s glamorous story of the nation’s biggest and baddest athletes running him over and probably giving him brain damage on a daily basis. The reason? Well, he watches Notre Dame play football every Saturday and he’s never seen Rudy. The only possible explanation for that is that his son’s a lying piece of shit.
Despite sleepwalking through life and having the least pleasant disposition every second of every day, Frank is back to the top of the Ruettiger children depth chart. The only way for Rudy to unseat him is by suiting up for the Irish for an actual game. Luke Skywalker had an easier time earning his father’s respect.
After much pleading, a coaching change, more heartache and a mini player revolt that didn’t actually happen, Rudy gets to dress for Notre Dame as they take on Georgia Tech in their final home game. The Ruettiger family makes the trip to South Bend fully expecting to see Rudy juggling on the sidewalk in a clown outfit or some shit. Instead, he has proven them all wrong for the billionth time and is in fact going to get to run out of the tunnel inside Notre Dame Stadium.
In one of the film’s most iconic scenes, Rudy’s dad walks into the stadium and sees the famous Notre Dame field for the first time in his life. His reaction is what you would expect any father’s to be in this situation: “I can’t believe Rudy actually did it. I’m so proud of him and I really hope he gets in for at least one play.”
Except that’s not it all.
This moment, once again, IS ALL ABOUT HIM.
Nevermind that the only reason I got off my ass to actually see this place in person was because the son I mentally abused for his entire childhood got his dick kicked in on a daily basis for two years and earned the entire campus’ respect ... THIS IS MY MOMENT.
Rudy gets in at the end of a comfortable Notre Dame win over Georgia Tech and sacks the quarterback on the final play of the game. His dad celebrates in the crowd in a redemption moment that hasn’t come close to being earned. He re-enacts the move that Rudy made to get to the quarterback and presumably proceeds to tell everyone around him that he taught his son everything he knows and that he would have had two sacks in the game if Dan Devine had been smart enough to bring him out of the crowd to suit up.
Rudy’s dad is the absolute worst.
Go Louisville. Beat Notre Dame.