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Sunday's Word: Irish

Is it hokey?  At times.  Do I believe it's exactly the way things happened?  Absolutely not.  But my favorite all-time football movie is, and remains, Rudy, and his quest to become a member, even if for just a day, a member of the Fightin' "Irish".

Aside from being one of the few football movies my wife will willingly sit down and watch with me, the "based on real events" story somehow, almost twenty years later, hits just the right notes and proceeds at just the right pace as Rudy Ruettiger goes from junior college to South Bend to dressing for a game.


Not coincidentally, Rudy was broadcast this past Saturday night on NBC, and the airing no doubt was spurred by the surprising real-life Notre Dame football team, who sits undefeated at 9-0 and also sits at No. 4 in the BCS.

This season, the parallels between the team with golden helmets in South Bend and the team with the golden helmets in Bethlehem come into focus.

One of my favorite humorists of all time is Joe Queenan, the acerbic author and columnist from Philadelphia who currently resides in the suburbs of New York City.   His book "True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans" now, as always, guides what I do.  It's simply one of the best books about sports fans ever written.

In many cases I feel Joe is spot-on with his cutting remarks on such public fixtures as Woody Allen, Red Lobster and even the Scots.  But he's wrong about the movie "Rudy".

Joe has gone after the film tangentially in certain op-eds and in several of his books, but his main criticism with the movie was that it was "diabolically hokey" and that, essentially, the tale is not real.

The real Rudy Ruettiger didn't have a run-in with then-head coach Dan Devine, for example.  It was actually Devine's idea to play Rudy at defensive end for three plays, where he would - as the movie shows - get credit for a sack of Georgia Tech's quarterback.  (Here's another news flash - Vince Vaughn didn't execute a perfect halfback-toss-and-pass for an in-your-face to Devine's playcalling, either, to ensure Rudy get his chance to play.  Additionally Vaughn also didn't come up with the worst collegiate huddle piece of speechwriting in history, either.  The hell with Devine, Billy!  If the offense is here, Rudy can't play!  For that one, perhaps, credit Jon Favreau.)

But more so than in many other movies, the emphasis on historical detail on Ruettiger's playing career, or the character traits of the author, misses the point entirely.

Put it this way - would any human being pay good money to watch a football movie where the entire movie, basically, is spent practicing?

That a movie can make a series of "Irish" practices, shots of locker rooms and cleaning up football stadiums something interesting and mythical - and something that can really, honestly, be seen over and over - has to count for something.

South Bend's campus is a beautiful place, filled with its own magic.  While Notre Dame Stadium occupies a lot of the mysticism, shots of their campus buildings wouldn't be out of place at any Patriot League school.  The home of the "Irish" is much bigger, of course, but the feel of the campus, as exuding from the movie, is not all that far removed from my feelings of walking through Lehigh's campus.  (I bet it also goes for people at Lafayette, Bucknell, Holy Cross, and other Patriot League schools, too.)

Those neglected aspects of the sport, too - practices, empty stadiums, grounds crew - are all a part of college football, and they get a huge place in this movie.  There are loads of people like Charles Dutton who surround football programs, doing jobs in the background, away from the spotlight but make the spectacle, even if it's painting the lines and taking care of the natural grass.  Some are former players.  Some are not.  Some are people who wish they were.

It doesn't matter if Dutton's character is fictionalized, whether Ruettiger's dad really loved Notre Dame football more than anything else, or whether Sean Astin's imitation of Knute Rockne didn't happen in real life.

Where Rudy gets it right is the heart of the place, the idea of the father loving Notre Dame football more than anything else, the sweeping shots of campus and the stadium.  Every time Rudy is looking to buy scalped tickets in front of the stadium, with the camera panning up, showing him walking away with the game in full pomp happening in front of him, I get chills.  I can't help it.  If this is hokey, more, please.

*****

On the way back from Liberty, I had the opportunity to talk to Keith Groller about Notre Dame, of all things. At the time, Notre Dame was on a mild winning streak, but nothing like the historic season the Fightin' "Irish" are on right now.

We kind of agreed that we thought everything about the "Irish" was overdone: the mythology, the squeaky-clean image, even the overall success of the program over time. We both hated them.

I remember back when I was an undergrad, I hated Notre Dame.

I hated their coach, Lou Holtz.  I hated their mythology.   I hated the fact that NBC became, essentially, the Notre Dame Football Network.  But most of all, I hated the fact that it seemed like everyone simultaneously looked the other way when it seemed like Holtz was just like Barry Switzer and Jimmy Johnson and the rest of college football, pursuing winning at all costs.

"Catholics vs. Convicts" was the rallying cry when Notre Dame faced off against Miami (FL).  Give me a break, I said then as I say now.


Amazingly, every starter on that undefeated 1988 team, except QB Tony Rice, would get an invite to an NFL training camp when their college career was over.  (Don't cry for Tony, though: Rice would resurface in the WLAF, the World Football League, as the quarterback of the Barcelona Dragons.)

I still believe to this day that they sacrificed their standards to get one of the best recruiting classes ever to go there.  There was a reason why they went from sub-.500 years under Gerry Faust to a national championship in 1988 with a bunch of NFL players.  You don't just get WR Rocket Ismail and RB Ricky Watters.

While an undergrad, I loved Lehigh football, of course, but I did take an important side trip to Happy Valley, one time.

Why?  To see Penn State take on Notre Dame, a game which the Nittany Lions beat Lou Holtz and the "Irish", 23-21, on a cold late afternoon where every one of the 110,000 fans stood the entire game.

This should give you an indication as to how deep my dislike of the "Irish" ran: despite my "Irish" heritage, and what should have been somewhat of a natural affinity to them, I was even willing to root for Penn State to see Notre Dame lose. 

By the time Holtz left, though, my loathing of the "Irish" stopped.

As I grew older, it didn't mean that much to me about Notre Dame, "Touchdown Jesus", or all their mythology was overdone.  My passions in college football were firmly directed elsewhere by that time - Lehigh games took on more and more passion and energy, as their climb from Patriot League champions to the team everybody feared in the first round of the FCS playoffs occurred. 

I even grew to respect the program, eventually.  I saw Knute Rockne: All American, starring a Ronald Reagan in his prime, and I didn't gag.  (It didn't hurt that Fordham features at the end of the picture.)  When studying college football history, you almost always end up in some shape or form back to Notre Dame, whether through the Big Ten, Pitt, Army, Navy, or Miami (FL), or USC.

I was even told from no bigger authority than my grandmother, maiden name: Leahy, that I'm some relation to legendary "Irish" head coach Frank Leahy.

Which leads us to this year's 9-0 Irish team, and this year's 9-0 Lehigh team.

Put aside the gold helmets, and put aside the beautiful, private-school campuses next to small industrial towns.  These teams have a lot in common.

First of all, these are two schools steeped in history and tradition.  Notre Dame's football team came into being in 1888, and has, of course, has Rockne, Leahy, Ismail, Ara Parseghian, "Gus" Dorais, and a who's who of college football hall of fame players.  Lehigh's football team came into being in 1884, and also has a list of famous people associated with the program: Richard Harding Davis, Tom Keady, Bill Leckonby, Fred Dunlap and John Whitehead, to say nothing about Joe Sterrett, Chris Lum, Phil Stambaugh, Marty Horn, Hank Small, Kevin Higgins, Pete Lembo, Dave Clawson, Dave Cecchini, and of course coach Coen.

Rivalries?  Both the Mountain Hawks and Fightin' "Irish" were built on them.  Notre Dame has Michigan, Navy, and USC, rivalries known by even the most casual of football fans.  Lehigh has Delaware, Colgate, and the most-played of them all, The Rivalry against Lafayette, set for it's 148th meeting less than two weeks away.  They're not as widely known, but they're no less bitter.

There's a link to Holy Cross.  Lehigh, of course, beat the Patriot League's Holy Cross, 36-35, last weekend, in a critical Patriot League game.  The junior college where kids go in order to get their grades up to Notre Dame's snuff is - of course - Holy Cross.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Lehigh practiced at Holy Cross' historic one-time rival, Boston College.  Next weekend, the Fightin' "Irish" will be playing - you guessed it - on the same field, trying to keep their perfect record intact, at 8:00 PM after Lehigh hosts Colgate for the Patriot League championship.

Both the Fightin' "Irish" and Lehigh have had offensive "lulls" before using their defenses to roar back in games.  In their 17-14 win against unranked BYU, their offense failed to score until falling behind 14-17, when RB George Atkinson III finally found the end zone to get Notre Dame the victory.

Last weekend, both teams fell behind teams by two scores and seemed doomed to suffer their first defeat, but came back to win the game.  Holy Cross took Lehigh to the limit before a missed field goal helped Lehigh survive, 36-35.  On the same day, the Fightin' "Irish" had a bad Pitt team take them to triple-overtime, rallying from a 20-6 deficit before finally outlasting the Panthers 29-26.  

"We overcame a lot tonight. We overcame some uncharacteristic mistakes," "Irish" head coach Brian Kelly said. "But our team kept fighting, kept playing," echoing the exact same thing Andy Coen has been saying about his Lehigh team all season.


But most of all, in a landscape filled with public universities, both schools seem to lack the respect for the "Irish" that is reserved for, say, public schools like Alabama or Ohio State.

People look at Notre Dame and some of the games on their schedule - like their 20-17 scrape against 3-6 Purdue  - and use that as a reason to downplay their undefeated season.  "They haven't played as tough a schedule as Alabama", they say.

Similarly, Lehigh is taking shots from across the country at the FCS level, with national columnists saying that even a 10-1 Mountain Hawk squad might not deserve the playoffs since, to paraphrase former Delaware head football coach Tubby Raymond, "they didn't play anybody".

The other, unfortunate, similarity between Notre Dame and Lehigh?  There is no margin for error.

If Notre Dame slips against unranked Boston College, their chance at a BCS crystal trophy will evaporate.  Instead of dreams of Fiesta, Sugar, or even the Rose Bowl, Notre Dame's fate will be to be relegated to a much lesser bowl, to wonder what may have been.

If Lehigh slips up against Colgate (or, some might say, Lafayette), then the shots from across the country will become louder.  No more will it be simply that the Mountain Hawks are overrated; it will be that they don't deserve to be in the playoffs at all.

For both the Mountain Hawks and the Fightin' "Irish", there is only one way to guarantee the postseason - and to shut everybody up - and that's to keep winning through the rest of the regular season, and beyond.

It's even enough to make me shelf my former hatred of the Fightin' "Irish".

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