There were heroes, and Rudy too, I guess

I have a habit of talking too much when I meet people at Notre Dame.

I drive shuttle vans during the annual alumni reunions. A few years back, I was returning a group of old-timers to their dorm when one of the wives asked about how much it would cost to get your name on one of the new buildings.

It was a topic I knew something about, so I gave the details with something similar to this funny little line: “It doesn’t matter if you walked on the moon, cured cancer or were a Heisman Trophy winner. If you don’t give $14 million, your name’s not on the building.”

Minutes later, the last person out of the van shook my hand and winked. I looked at his name tag. He was Johnny Lattner, football hero and 1953 Heisman Trophy winner. Fortunately, he was laughing.

A few years later, I had a van loaded with men from the Class of 1971. They were quiet, so I needed to provide the entertainment. Again, there was a topic I knew something about, the basketball team of that era.

I told of how I was a huge fan of Austin Carr and that my brothers and I had seen him play most of his home games. They were so lucky to be students at the same time as Austin Carr.

No one said anything, so I added, “Please don’t tell me that you guys didn’t go to the games.”

“This guy did,” one of them said. He was pointing to Jackie Meehan, who was Carr’s backcourt mate for all three of their varsity seasons at Notre Dame. Carr scored 2,560 points in 74 games for the Irish, most of them because Meehan passed him the ball.

Then I did it again Thursday night.

The Notre Dame women’s basketball game had ended, and I was chatting with my friend Mark. He and I didn’t know each other during our undergraduate years, but we both were members of the Class of 1976.

Another of Mark’s friends walked by, and I was introduced to Pat Sarb, also a ’76er.

We talked about how ours was a famous class. The current university president and athletic director were our classmates. Before us, Notre Dame had been an all-male school. Ours was the first class that included women as freshmen. And then, of course, there was Rudy.

Daniel Ruettiger made himself into a Notre Dame icon with the movie “Rudy.” It’s a based-on-true-events story about how an undersized player overcame great odds to earn a place on the Notre Dame football team. 

One dramatic scene occurs when the list is posted of players who will suit up for the final game of Rudy’s senior season. Rudy is not on the list, but his teammates stage a minor revolt. They are willing to turn in their own uniforms if Rudy isn’t allowed to play. And, of course, Rudy gets on the field in the final minutes and tackles the Georgia Tech quarterback.

I told Pat I never liked the message of that movie. I saw Rudy as being selfish. He wanted the glory for himself, not his team. He seemed to be that way in real life as well.

I knew something about this, so I kept speaking. I had interviewed Arike Ogunbowale in 2018 a few weeks after she hit last-second game-winning shots in the final two games to lead Notre Dame’s women’s basketball team to a national championship.

Ogunbowale seemed sincere when she said that it wasn’t really her who hit those shots. There were 11 other players, the coaches and staff members who put everything in place. The ball never would have been in her hands if not for everyone in that group.

People think that Rudy is the spirit of Notre Dame. I hope not. Ogunbowale should be.

That’s when I learned something about Pat. He was the player who sat out so Rudy could play.

Pat had been a star quarterback in high school and converted to defensive back at Notre Dame. He got enough playing time as a sophomore to earn a monogram on the 1973 national championship team.

His playing time disappeared when Dan Devine replaced Ara Parseghian as coach. Pat ended up on the practice team with Rudy, a non-scholarship player.

As a scholarship athlete, Pat would be on the field for that Senior Day game. It was the only game his senior year that he was listed on the dress squad. Two team captains approached him and asked if he would be willing to give up that spot so Rudy would get the reward for his hard work at practices. Pat agreed. 

He wouldn’t have, Pat told me, if he didn’t think Rudy deserved it.

I didn’t know Pat before Thursday. His father, Gerard, and son, Matt (like Rudy, a football walk-on), both are N.D. grads. So are daughter Carolyn, a sister and two brothers. His grandfather, Tom Hickey, was a major local contractor, responsible for dozens of projects on the Notre Dame campus. Tom also served as Knute Rockne’s godfather when the legendary coach converted to Catholicism in 1925.

Pat’s devotion to Notre Dame goes way beyond mine. By comparison, I’ve been a skeptical news reporter and I often question what Notre Dame does. On its best days, Notre Dame is a source of great inspiration. On its worst, it’s just a business collecting and dispersing money.

Sometimes I need to remind myself that I really don’t know much. Shut off the brain. Let some fresh air in. 

Maybe the real moment in that movie isn’t when Rudy achieves his dream by getting onto the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Instead, the message could be similar to Ogunbowale’s. It’s about the players like Pat. Other people contribute and sacrifice themselves while the camera focuses on you.

I don’t receive the experience of giving unless you are there to take.

I can think about this story differently now with a different sense of heroes. Rudy might not agree with that, but I’m not sure it matters.

He’s already had his minute, his tackle and his movie.