Running Out of That Tunnel
I was probably 19 years old when I first saw Rudy. Still dreaming of a collegiate football career, I emerged from the theater feeling hopeful. Like Rudy (Sean Astin), I was (am) slow, small, and not too athletic; like him, I loved football and craved the opportunity to play at the collegiate level. For several weeks, I ran and pumped iron, preparing to fulfill my dream. Unfortunately, a bum ankle on the second day of football tryouts ended my hopes to become the Jewish 1990s version of Rudy.
Some 10 years later, my feelings about Rudy have changed significantly, so that I am troubled by its emotional effectiveness. It follows the true story of Rudy Ruttinger, who rose from the late ‘60s doldrums of a deindustrializing Midwest (marked by smoke stacks, gloomy weather, and railroad tracks) to the glorious Notre Dame Football field. Though Rudy’s family, friends, and coaches question his goal, he remains determined throughout a series of adversities. He overcomes a learning disability and poor grades to secure admission to Notre Dame. Unable to win a scholarship, and lacking financial assistance from his parents, he works his way through school as a groundskeeper. His boss, Fortune (Charles S. Dutton), a former Notre Dame football player, manages the team’s facilities, serving as Rudy’s mentor. He lets Rudy sleep at his workplace, where the boy studies with only a streetlight for illumination.
Surmounting his lack of athleticism (Rudy tells Ara Parseghian, “God made certain people to be football players”) and abuse from other players, he eventually proves himself as a football player. One powerful montage shows historic Notre Dame players driving Rudy’s face and body into the ground, but not destroying his spirit: in each instance, he jumps to his feet and tries again. Daily visits to the ice bath and the jealousy of his teammates, who feel he is “showing them up” with his excessive efforts, have little impact on Rudy, who fights on until he finally is given the opportunity to wear the Notre Dame jersey at his last home game.
Although Rudy may appear to be a football film or a biopic about an unknown hero, it is, more broadly, a confirmation of the American Dream, and secondarily, an illustration of Notre Dame’s status as an American institution defined by whiteness, Catholicism (Touchdown Jesus), and victory.
Following The Spirit of Notre Dame (1931) and Knute Rockne - All-American (1940), Rudy locates Notre Dame as the capital of college sports. It memorializes a time when sports meant more than television contracts, bowl games, bling-bling, do-rags, and disappointments. But even amid this nostalgia, Rudy has help: he fulfills his dream not only by his resolve, but also because the film embraces a slightly less nostalgic device, the biracial buddy formula. Specifically, Rudy deploys the trope of black redemption, described as a “huckfinn fixation” by Donald Bogle, to explain Rudy’s growth.
Like other, more recent films (Men of Honor, Green Mile, Hardball), it elucidates the ways that black-white friendships improve the life experiences of whites, without any attention to what blacks might gain from such relationships. Reflecting a liberal desire to counter 1990s racism, the film offers redemption through Rudy’s relationship with Fortune. The boy’s moral and intellectual growth comes through his daily interactions with this hardworking black man who teaches him about the importance of hard work, humility, and, most importantly, perspective. “You are five-feet nothing, a hundred and nothing, and you got hardly a speck of athletic ability, and you hung in with the best college football team in the land, for two years.”
The racialized ideology that informs the film—and the DVD commentary—is made more pronounced by the racial discourses of today’s sports. Where Rudy constructs a time when kids like Rudy worked hard for the sake of glory, today’s “black world” is identified by a “me-first” attitude. Yet, this earlier time never truly existed. College sports were never devoid of cheating and illegal recruiting, fixes and profits. And the ongoing centrality of race belies the film’s nostalgic conservatism.
The DVD’s biographical information, interviews, and enclosed CD soundtrack not only reify the story’s simultaneous sentimentality and authenticity, but also its promotion of white masculinity and historical amnesia. The extras offered on this “Anniversary Edition” confirm both the truthfulness of the story and the emotional appeal of this “rags-to-riches” story. The DVD includes a short featurette, a biography of Ruttinger (“Rudy: The Real Story”), and a series of interviews, all telling this same improbable yet “universal” story. Between the clichéd phrases (“intestinal fortitude”; “ultimate dream”; “inspiration”; “guts”) and the assertions of the film’s accuracy, the extra features emphasize the story’s “power.”
It’s true that Rudy works to provide white kids like myself with the hope of “making it,” but it also erases white privilege, replacing it with faith in meritocracy and a protestant work ethic, espouses traditionalist ideologies under the guise of poignant storytelling. Even as I watched the film again, preparing to put my Ethnic Studies training into action, I still wanted to chant “Rudy, Rudy” upon his entry into the game.
The movie’s success, then, lies in its ability to codify ideologies of whiteness, masculinity, and nostalgia within a coming-of-age story that might make even the most cynical race scholar well up with tears: sentiment trumps politics. My dreams of being Rudy, of running out of that tunnel, supercedes my critical gaze for just a few seconds. While I am able to withstand the pseudo-nostalgia for a time when sport meant hard work and (intrarace) community, the emotional appeal of the underdog relegates Rudy to the long list of films that disturb me politically and inspire me, leaving me conflicted. And that may be Rudy‘s most important lesson.