Q&A with Rudy Ruettiger

Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, the inspiration for the 1993 movie about an underdog Notre Dame football player, is coming to the Hilton Sandestin Resort on Sept. 24 to speak at the second annual Boys and Girls Club Steak & Stake dinner. Rudy has been an inspiration speaker for years, imparting a message of courage and optimism even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. He sat down with Northwest Florida Business Climate in anticipation of the event to talk faith, family and football.

Tell me about your motivational speaking.
We’re all motivational. Anytime you inspire people or tell stories to allow people to face adversity even though they make mistakes, you’re helping them along. You’re like a coach. You coach them along to get through their tough times or make better decisions. You help their working relationships and their personal lives too. I’m a coach. I’ve always been a coach. Maybe my story helps a lot of people because we all have challenges and adversity that they need to face head on with accountability and responsibility. When I speak, that’s how it all comes together. I’ve been through a lot of things and I can address those things in a positive way. You got to think positive and deal with it in a positive way instead of dwelling on it or blaming people. I don’t know if you want to call that motivational; I call it teaching a skill set.

What do you think it is about your story that captured the national attention?
The adversity we all go through. When things don’t go your way, you have to have faith in the foundation you have. Whether they’re going through a marital or personal or financial problem, they’re identifying with that struggle. They look at a guy like me who just didn’t give up and kept moving forward. So that connects them to that idea that you can be anybody. Maybe they’ve given up on that, but this reignites that flame.

Was that gumption a product of your upbringing, the people you surrounded yourself with, or was it something more internal?
Remember I mentioned the word foundation. My parents taught me that only some people can have this and only some people can have that. That’s there they were wrong, and they settled for the mediocrity of life. Well what’s stopping me? “Well, Rudy, you’re not smart enough or big enough.” Okay, and that’s all true. Maybe they’re right, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do that. So I stepped out of the box, and that’s what people see. People telling me that I couldn’t do something put a chip on my shoulder.

What role did luck play in that?
I think luck has a lot to do with it. But I was lucky because I was in the right spot, because I prepared. You bet I got lucky. I’m lucky I’m not hanging around people who bring you down. I remove myself from that negative energy. That’s luck. But that’s also patience and understanding and defining your purpose. A man makes his own luck. But relationships are very important, and that was a foundational thing my parents did teach me. Character and teamwork and leadership are just as important as luck.

What do you find best motivates people to overcome challenges?
A mindset. You have to have a mindset that is positive and let that dominate the negative. Move forward in a positive way. Reset your mind. Otherwise, you’re just going to have a pity party.

Do your family members find that insistent positivity annoying?
Oh yeah. I’m always motivating my son, and he’ll tell me I’m annoying. I get it. They’re too young to realize the value in it.

Tell me more about teamwork, because I know that was crucial to your famous Notre Dame game.
I don’t agree with the top guy getting a trophy. Give everybody a trophy, because the top guy wouldn’t be there without his team. The only reason he got there was because of me, because I helped him get there, and I didn’t get anything. I went to practice and helped him be great. That’s where it’s out of whack. How about if I give one trophy out, I give one to everybody who helped him become what he is? Participation and teamwork are good and should be recognized. It’s important for that kid to have that recognition.

So I know your son plays football. Is it an interesting dynamic between you and the coach and the fans when you’re at the games?
You know, it’s interesting, when you’re a dad, it’s a whole different dynamic. You’re just one of the dads. I mean, they know who you are because of that, not because of the movie or anything. I’m not active on the team; just a father.

You’re speaking at a Boys and Girls Club function this month. Are there any other non-profits that are close to your heart?
I speak to a lot of children’s foundations. Whether it’s for cancer, abuse, or anything that is a disadvantage for children. A lot of kids go to Boys and Girls Club for leadership and skills that they don’t get at home. I like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts too. I go wherever.

Did your passion for helping kids start when you had your own?
I think before that. But when you have your own, you can really figure out what you need to do. You understand the sacrifice.

Do you find it’s best to lead them or let them lead themselves?
I let them be themselves. Whatever they do, we let them. We guide and embrace them, of course. We help them with their decisions. But they have to do what fulfills them. It’s their decision; not our decision.

What can people expect from your discussion down here?
If they need a purpose, they’ll get a purpose. They’ll find out that there are different ways of looking at life in a positive way.