By Darren Epps
One sack, one improbable moment, one movie brought two men together for the first time Friday night.
Rudy Ruettiger, the former Notre Dame walk-on whose inspirational story is depicted in the 1993 movie "Rudy," was introduced at the David Brainerd Christian School's fundraising banquet by Jim Woods, a former Baylor School football standout.
Woods was on the field when Rudy concluded his 27-second career with the now-infamous sack against Georgia Tech in 1975. Woods was a junior center on the Tech team but did not, he said with a laugh, give up the sack.
He doesn't even remember if he was on the field when Rudy, a 5-foot-6 defensive end, brought down 6-foot-4 Georgia Tech quarterback Rudy Allen as time expired.
"It was a special moment," said Woods, who now resides in Atlanta, "but none of us knew it at the time."
Before the banquet, the two men exchanged stories about the old Notre Dame-Georgia Tech rivalry and reminisced about the game. Isn't that what "Rudy" does? Bring people together?
Ruettiger, 58, said Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger approached him in Las Vegas and admitted watching the movie more than 100 times with his father. A Virginia Tech student e-mailed Ruettiger, who spoke at the school a year ago, and said he watched the movie six times after last month's shootings claimed two of his friends. The movie gives you hope.
Dreams make life tolerable, right? And "Rudy" provides inspiration because it's so real, right down to the janitor imploring Rudy not to quit the Thursday before the Georgia Tech game, when making the 60-man dress list seemed improbable. (One Hollywood exaggeration, however, was the scene when the players handed their jerseys to coach Dan Devine in protest of Rudy not making the dress list.)
The crowd really did chant Rudy's name before he took the field, Ruettiger said, because they knew him from boxing and the school paper had a story about him making the dress list. He never missed a practice in four years.
"You have to keep explaining to yourself, why are you doing this? If you keep explaining it to yourself, you find that answer," Ruettiger said. "There's no rhyme or reason why you would do something that is so impossible. The impossible does become possible if you set smaller goals. Remember, I had to get accepted into Notre Dame first."
Meeting Ruettiger got me thinking about David Yancey, the former Tennessee running back. Sometimes, we get so caught up in the scandals or statistics that we miss all the Rudy-like athletes around us. And so the rest of this story is about Yancey.
Yancey was a limited high school player, an absolute non-prospect. He didn't play much until his senior year. You couldn't find him with a Rivals.com subscription and a magnifying glass when he came to Tennessee in 2002.
He tried out for the team at the beckoning of his friend and UT receiver Chris Hannon. The coaches made Yancey a defensive back and he rarely played.
"That's the closest I came to giving up my dream," Yancey said Friday from his hometown, Norfolk, Va. "The thought crossed through my head, 'Why don't I concentrate on school?' But I loved football too much."
Yancey figured that if he wasn't going to get a chance, he should at least have fun. So he switched to his lifelong position at running back, not really concerned that Cedric Houston, Jabari Davis, Corey Larkins, Derrick Tinsley and Gerald Riggs Jr. all occupied the depth chart.
"I just wanted to enjoy myself, even if it was practice," Yancey said. "It was football, you know? And I had a goal to reach."
And in 2004, Yancey's redshirt sophomore year, he scampered 23 yards for a touchdown against South Carolina. His mom was sick with cancer, and he'll never forget that moment. The morning of the Cotton Bowl that season, his mother died. Yancey promptly rushed for 59 yards against Texas A&M.
Yancey had earned a scholarship, but Phillip Fulmer signed a large recruiting class and needed it back in 2005. So Yancey was a walk-on again. But he did not quit. And his senior season, Yancey scored two touchdowns. He'll try out in two weeks for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. He believes he'll still make an NFL team one day, and do you want to be the one who tells him it's impossible? As Ruettiger says, it's always too soon to quit.
"You know, I love the story of Rudy," Yancey said. "It was a motivator for me. I grew up with that story."
I told Ruettiger about Yancey before he spoke Friday night.
"You know, that's great," he said. "That's the magic of the message. It's about a journey. I think we can all relate to that journey because we have different struggles. We're either coming out of turmoil or going into some type of turmoil. That's life. If you quit, they win and you lose. If you don't quit, you win."
Yancey has a nuclear engineering degree and a tryout with a pro football team. He won.
E-mail Darren Epps at firstname.lastname@example.org