Introduction..................................................xiii 1. On the Ball................................................3 2. Friday night Lights........................................23 3. Sea Change.................................................39 4. Reading the Signs..........................................59 5. Holy Cross.................................................71 6. Kneeling at the Grotto.....................................83 7. In the Ring................................................99 8. Walking On.................................................111 9. Living the Dream...........................................119 10. Still Fighting............................................125 11. Never Quit................................................137 12. Twenty-Seven Seconds......................................149 13. Rocky Too.................................................167 14. Chalk Talk and Hollywood Dreams...........................181 15. One Hurdle at a Time......................................199 16. Making Rudy...............................................211 17. Red Carpets and White Gloves..............................229 18. Sharing the Message.......................................239 19. Receiving the Message.....................................247 20. Life Lessons..............................................261 21. Hope......................................................269 Acknowledgments...............................................279 About the Authors.............................................281
I was ten years old when I got my first glimpse.
I remember the hot vinyl seat searing the back of my legs as I sat toward the back of a school bus full of other young ball players, returning from a Little League field trip to a White Sox game up in Chicago.
The whole day had been amazing. Seeing those players take the field; actually witnessing my first live game; and stepping foot into a major league stadium and feeling the roar of that crowd was electrifying. Of course, every one of us kids from every one of those Joliet teams wore a glove to the game—just hoping and dreaming that we might be lucky enough to snag a foul ball as we sat in the stands. The thought of actually catching, touching, holding on to a major league baseball was about as big a thrill as my ten-year-old mind could imagine.
Then it happened. The wind-up. The pitch. The clock of the ball as it cracked off a Louisville Slugger, high and shallow down the left-field line, arcing foul and coming right for us! Every kid stood with his glove in the air. I remember squinting into the sun, doing everything I could to wish that ball directly into my hand. It came close! But I just couldn't reach it. One of the other team's coaches snagged that ball out of the sky as if it were tossed directly to him.
So there we were, rolling back toward Joliet, when that coach stood up and told everyone to quiet down. He stood at the front of the bus with that major league baseball in hand, tossing it and re-catching it a couple of times before holding it high above his head so every one of us could see it. "When we get back," he said, "we're all gonna line up and I'm gonna throw this ball. And whoever gets it can have it."
I nearly fell over. I wanted that ball more than anything I'd wanted in my entire life. The whole ride home, all I did was keep thinking about that ball. A major league baseball! Mine for the taking! I couldn't believe my luck.
My knees bounced up and down with anticipation as we pulled into Highland Park. As soon as that bus driver opened the door, we all burst out and ran onto the field. There must have been thirty of us boys all lined up at our home plate, staring out across the baseball diamond to the chest-high wooden fence at the back of the outfield, chomping at the bit to get this ball. Even so, I kept thinking, That ball's mine. It was mine. I knew it.
That coach got up in front of us on the pitcher's mound while the other coaches and a few of the parents who had come to pick us up corralled us into a straight line so it would be fair to everyone. "Ready?" he said.
"Yeah!" the kids all shouted.
"Are you ready?" he asked again.
"Yeah!" they all screamed louder. But not me. I was silent. I was focused on that ball, watching the red seam stitching go round and round as he turned it in his hand.
Satisfied by the enthusiasm of that final shout, the coach turned around; pulled his right arm back; lifted his left leg; took a big, exaggerated, hard step forward; and launched that ball in a massive arc all the way to the back of the outfield. I never took my eyes off it, even for a split second, even as my feet began to move beneath me. I wasn't conscious of just how fast I was running. I paid no attention to whether I was out in front or far behind those dozens of other competitors. All that mattered to me was that ball, and that ball was all I saw—even as it hit the ground in the neatly trimmed grass, took one hard bounce, and flew right over that fence to land in the overgrown mess of weeds on the other side. I watched that ball the whole way as I blew through the outfield and leaped over that fence like it wasn't even there. I was so focused, I didn't even stop to think about how to get over it—I just did it, as if I had leaped over a thousand fences before and knew exactly what to do. I knew just where that ball had landed. I knew which blades of tall grass and milkweed it landed behind, and I dove right through them, crashing to the ground and feeling that hard, round presence crush into my chest. I pulled my arms in, clutched that ball to me as I rolled over, sprung up from the ground, raised it high above my head and screamed, "I got it!"
Suddenly aware of the world around me, I noticed kids to my right and my left looking in the weeds in all the wrong places; a whole bunch of other players were still on the field or struggling to get over the fence. I left them in the dust. The fact that they were bigger than me, faster than me, and stronger than me didn't matter. I was kind of stunned by it. I remember having flashes of "What just happened?" and "How did I do that?" But what I really remember is the feel of that baseball in my hand. I was bolstered by the knowledge of where that ball came from and the undisputable fact that it now belonged to me. Squeezing the leathery weight of it just felt good.
That night, I placed that major league ball on the nightstand beside my bed, where I could see it from my pillow. The last object I would see before I fell off to sleep. I kept it there for years, unknowingly holding on to that feeling. Holding on to that tiny moment when I gave it my all and got exactly what I wanted. A feeling I would someday need to recapture: proof, in the form of a little round ball, that anything—anything—is possible.
I misplaced that ball somewhere in my travels through life. I've always hoped that someday it would show back up. But the memory and feeling of that ball will never be forgotten. It's embedded in my thoughts forever.
* * *
My mother always made us fold our underwear.
I know that's a strange thing to remember, and probably not one of the first things most people would mention when recalling their childhood, but I hated it. I hated the very thought of doing it. It made no sense to me. Why would we waste time folding an article of clothing that we're only going to put in a drawer where no one will see it? Especially considering the fact that it goes on under our clothes! Don't get me wrong. I'm not against folding underwear if that's what you're into. But to have it forced upon me as a kid seemed like some sort of unjust punishment.
Taking it one step further, my mother actually pressed our underwear before we got dressed for church on Sundays. She refused to let us leave the house without perfectly cleaned and pressed underwear. "Why are you doing that?" we'd ask her, and her reply was always the same: "In case you get in an accident on the way to mass."
I can still picture my mother in the kitchen, clear as day, her tiny frame wielding that heavy iron with ease, standing there in a flower-print shirt, pressing our underwear and the dozens upon dozens of other items that just came off the clothesline—crooning old show tunes to herself while she did it, as if she enjoyed it. The funny thing is, I think she actually did. She had dreams of becoming a singer someday, and I don't think she ever stopped dreaming. You could hear her dream while she hummed, and there was something about putting those clothes in order and tackling that task, one skivvy at a time, that gave her a sense of peace. That inspired me. When she sang a song, she was relaxed and joyful. You could feel her energy and it relaxed our whole household.
In a house full of fourteen children, peace wasn't exactly easy to come by. In fact, my parents believed there was really only one way to find it: through order and discipline. So as far back as I can remember, order and discipline ruled in the Ruettiger house. My mother was in charge, every object had its place, every child had his or her duties, and breaking that sense of order meant you'd find your behind at the receiving end of my dad's big, strong hand—while bent over a hard wooden stool in the kitchen. (Often while mom continued ironing.)
I was the oldest boy in that massive family—my parents had seven boys and seven girls by the time they stopped having children—and let's just say up front that "order" and "discipline" were never my strong suits. My sisters have un-fond memories of me dressing up as a cowboy and bounding down the basement stairs, destroying their quiet attempts to play house by kicking over their makeshift toy kitchen sets. "Mom!" they'd scream. "Danny's doing it again!!" The spanking never deterred me. I'd keep coming back for more.
In fact, that's pretty much the story of my childhood.
My parents, Dan and Betty Ruettiger, married young, and like a lot of people in those days, they started having kids right away. After two back-to-back girls—my older sisters, Jean Ann and Mary Eileen—I came into the world on August 22, 1948. My mother would forget my birthday the very next year and celebrate it on August 23 instead—a date that would stick with me as a sort of pseudo-birthday from that day forward. I'm not sure why she forgot, but it stuck!
I was born Daniel E. Ruettiger (my whole family still calls me "Danny"), at St. Joseph's Hospital. Just like the rest of the clan, I was raised in the town where we were expected to grow old and die, the same town in which both of my parents had also been born and raised: the working-class Chicago suburb of Joliet, Illinois.
Joliet is a good forty-five-minute drive south of the city—far enough to seem like a world away when you're a kid. In fact, I have very few childhood memories of Chicago at all, despite the fact that it was so close. My memories tend to revolve around a one- or two-mile radius of our house. That was my world. Church. School. The park. The grocery store. The constant sound of train whistles blowing, and the functional, beautyless, hard-worn streets and buildings of America's working class.
My parents' first house at 206 South East Circle Drive had three tiny bedrooms squeezed into less than seven hundred square feet. There was a one-car garage set back and to the side, with our neighbors' houses (all equally small) just a few feet away on either side. As we got older, the little patch of grass under the willow tree out front became a meeting point for those neighbors. It was a spot where we'd play football together. Laugh together. It seemed big then.
It's difficult for me to remember the period before that house was packed full of brothers and sisters. And by full, I mean bursting-at-the-seams full. I was a freshman in high school before we would finally move to a bigger house, and by then there were ten kids in our family. Imagine, just for a moment, trying to squeeze all of that pent-up energy into the four walls of that little yellow box of a post–World War II track home on the edge of a cornfield. One bedroom for the boys, one for the girls; bunk beds crammed together in each. In between sleep and school came what can only be described as resounding (if somewhat controlled) chaos.
The noise was constant. "Quiet, Danny!" "Tim, please!!" My mom did the best she could to keep a lid on it, but if you've ever walked into a grade-school cafeteria at lunchtime, that's pretty much the feeling you'd get if you walked into our house unannounced. After me came Carol, Rosemarie, Betsy, Tim, Francis, Mickey, John, Rita, Norma, Bernie, and Mark. The last few (from John on down) wouldn't be born until we moved into that slightly bigger house my freshman year, but I think after your family exceeds maybe five children, the enormity of the routines remains the same.
My mom loved to cook. Even for that army of kids. Dinners consisted of a lot of spaghetti, bean soup, or chili—stuff that could be prepared in bulk, wasn't too expensive, and would go a long way. In the summers, us kids would sit around shucking thirty bags of sweet corn at a time. We'd all cringe at the thought of liver and onions, but we'd eat it anyway. And occasionally my dad would bring home a live chicken from his parents' chicken farm—chopping the head off and letting it run around 'til it bled out in the backyard before handing it to my mom to pluck, boil, roast, and serve whole for dinner. The weekends usually meant hot dogs and hamburgers, and whatever leftovers there were would get consumed all week long. I don't know how she did it, but it was always delicious. And the smell of that food coming together made us all the more anxious to see dad's car pull into the driveway at the end of each day.
When dad came home, dinner was served at the big table he'd cobbled together by hand, and we all sat around and didn't talk. It was by far the most peaceful time of day in the Ruettiger house. In fact, the only other time I ever remember it being that quiet was each Christmas Eve, when all of us boys would stay up late and freeze in absolute stillness if we heard a noise that might be Old Saint Nick approaching.
At those dinners, for as long as I lived at home, we said our prayers, and if we wanted something we politely asked for it—we never grabbed. Even as kids, we all accepted that it had to be that way. I could see my dad decompressing while we ate. There were times when he fell asleep right there at the table. But I could always see my mom's satisfaction when everything went smoothly. It just made her happy when everything was in order. Even after spending all that time cooking dinner each night, she would take the time to pack all of our lunches for school the next day and line 'em up on the kitchen counter for us. She somehow knew that no family, let alone a family as big as ours, could live in chaos. So she did what she could to get a handle on it—to keep a lid on our antics—every day.
Just think about the logistics of juggling that many kids. I remember one day mom piled us all into the station wagon to go grocery shopping, which was always a bit of an ordeal, and when we got back home to South East Circle Drive, she realized one of the kids was missing! My sister Carol just plain wasn't there. My mom panicked. I'll never forget that look in her eyes, thinking that she had left a child behind, and what if something happened. It was awful to see her like that. But she piled us all back into the car as quickly as possible and raced back to the store. Thank God, there was Carol—my eight-year-old sister—just wandering happy as a clam up and down the aisles wondering where everyone had gone.
From that day forward, my mom counted heads and made us call out our names before she'd put the car into drive, no matter where we went. "Who's in the car?" she'd yell from the driver's seat. "We got eight? Call 'em out!" And we'd run down our names one by one, just to be sure.
Here's the thing that really gets me, though. The thing that seems so impossible in today's world, by today's standards, even though most families don't have half or even a quarter as many kids as my parents did. I mean, my mom's whole life was washing clothes and cooking, right? That alone was more than a full-time job. She didn't really have time to do anything else. Yet she served as the president of the Mother's Club and never missed a Little League game or a school play—for any of her kids. Heck, my dad coached Little League even while holding down three jobs to make ends meet! I think about what a commitment that was. In their eyes, their children always came first: "It's all about the kids." Despite the difficulties and complications that come with having so many children, it's as if that one guiding principle kept both of my parents sane and on track. "We had them; we're responsible for them." Simple.
That's not to say they were perfect parents. Nobody's perfect. Nobody. And I don't particularly agree with how much of their discipline was doled out the old-fashioned way. Just about every report card day, at least a few of us boys would get in line for a spanking over the stool in the kitchen. It wasn't because of our grades. It was over reports that we weren't being respectful to our teachers or were being troublemakers in the classroom. My dad was concerned with honor and respect. So one after the other, whack! "Next!"
My brother Francis and I were the main culprits. We were both deemed troublemakers, and we both dealt with the same sort of issues in school. The spankings were so routine that Francis eventually figured a way to get out of it: he'd stuff a couple of thin books down the back of his pants so the hits wouldn't hurt. My dad was so busy going from one kid to the next that he didn't even notice! There were other times when my dad would get so frustrated he'd spank you a second or third time for no apparent reason. I get it. With fourteen crazy kids running around in a little house, all of his worry about fixing the car, and paying the bills, I'd probably want to whack something too. But I wonder what it taught us. Did it keep us in line? Maybe. Would we have turned out for the worse without it? Hard to say. My brothers and sisters and I all grew up to be good people, and I say that without bragging. There are no big mess-ups in the whole family of fourteen. That's pretty extraordinary. Yet I think that's a reflection of the love and support our parents showed more than any hand-to-rear discipline. Even so, it's a tricky game to second-guess and look back with twenty-twenty hindsight. There are no instant replays in life. You get what you get and you have to live with the calls that were made at the time.
Excerpted from Rudy by DANIEL "RUDY" RUETTIGER MARK DAGOSTINO Copyright © 2012 by Rudy Ruettiger. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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