Feature   Know Your Military

Sports Heroes Who Served: Navy Enlistment Helped Spark Football Legend's Career

Jan. 12, 2021 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

Daniel Eugene "Rudy" Ruettiger became a famous college football athlete, but he got his big start by joining the Navy in 1968 and serving two years at sea as a yeoman.

Using his Vietnam GI Bill benefits, he enrolled in Indiana's Holy Cross College in 1972 and then at the University of Notre Dame in 1974, playing in the Orange Bowl in 1975 and the Gator Bowl in 1976 — the year he graduated.

Football players make a play during a game.
Daniel Eugene "Rudy" Ruettiger
Defensive end Daniel Eugene "Rudy" Ruettiger, No. 45 (far right) sacks Georgia Tech quarterback Rudy Allen, No. 9, on the final play of the game, Notre Dame, Ind., Nov. 8, 1975. Notre Dame won the game.
Photo By: Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame
VIRIN: 751008-O-ZZ999-003

Despite being undersized for a football player — 5 feet, 6 inches tall and 165 pounds—Ruettiger was accepted as a defensive end on Notre Dame's Fighting Irish football team due to his drive and determination.

His claim to fame was brief, but spectacular. On Nov. 8, 1975, he was put in the game against Georgia Institute of Technology. During the final play of the game, he sacked Georgia Tech quarterback Rudy Allen.

People are running off a football field as a football player is carried by teammates on their shoulders. In the background, the stands are filled with people.
Football Celebration
Defensive end Daniel Eugene "Rudy" Ruettiger is carried off the field by University of Notre Dame teammates after Ruettiger sacked Georgia Tech quarterback Rudy Allen on the final play of the game, Notre Dame, Ind., Nov. 8, 1975. Notre Dame won the match.
Photo By: Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame
VIRIN: 751008-O-ZZ999-001

Ruettiger's teammates were ecstatic, and they carried him off the field; at the time, he was the only player ever to receive such an honor.

The story of the undersized young man being allowed to play and sacking the opposition's quarterback led to the 1993 movie "Rudy" based on Ruettiger's short football career. Ruettiger was played by actor Sean Astin.

Ruettiger actually appeared in the movie as a fan in the final scene. Although Hollywood often takes liberties to make events more dramatic when making films based on true stories, Ruettiger said the film was 92% accurate.

These days, Ruettiger likes to visit service members and give motivational speeches.

A line of football players carries another player on their shoulders off the field.
Field Exit
Defensive end Daniel Eugene "Rudy" Ruettiger is carried off the field by his University of Notre Dame teammates after Ruettiger sacked Georgia Tech quarterback Rudy Allen on the final play of the game, Notre Dame, Ind., Nov. 8, 1975. Notre Dame won the game.
Photo By: Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame
VIRIN: 751008-O-ZZ999-002

During one such visit to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, on Oct. 7, 2010, he told the soldiers that "the Navy actually changed my thinking around, my attitude around, and who I was."

Ruettiger said members of the armed forces are great Americans. "This is an honor for me to come here. I'm real humbled and real privileged," he said.

During his motivational speech he talked about how everyone has the potential to be whatever they want to be.

A man speaks into a microphone as soldiers sit at tables to listen.
Ruettiger Speaks
Former Notre Dame defensive end Daniel Eugene "Rudy" Ruettiger, gives a motivational speech to soldiers at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., Oct. 7, 2010.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 101007-O-ZZ999-001

"It's not your age, it's your attitude," he said, adding that people who work hard deserve a shot.

Ruettiger also told the soldiers all it takes to succeed is what he called the four Cs: character, courage, commitment and contribution. "The little things make a big difference," he said. 

More Stories of Sports Heroes Who Served
sports graphic
Sports Heroes Graphic
Sports Heroes Who Served graphic - with title
Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200706-D-ZZ999-903