SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In the film “Rudy,” the protagonist waits with the team in the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium, just before they charge onto the field.
“Rudy,” says fictional teammate Roland Steele, “are you ready for this, champ?”
Rudy: “I’ve been ready for this my whole life!”
Imagine being there in the tunnel as they filmed that scene, the marching band high-stepping through its routine. Come down to the field and see what the filmmakers did as they recreated the story of Rudy Ruettiger.
Part of what they saw, but never revealed, was a lot of helmets with a "Y” on the side.
The BYU Cougars were part of one of the most popular sports films in history.
Come down to the field and see
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BYU’s 1992 game at Notre Dame was momentous in a couple of ways. First, it was the initial meeting between the Cougars and the Irish. (Saturday’s game marks their eighth meeting.)
Second, it immortalized BYU on film.
“Immortalized” is probably stretching things, since the Cougars never actually appeared in the film. Nor were they mentioned. But stretching is what Hollywood does best. There have been numerous stories noting discrepancies between fact and fiction in the film.
In any case, the Cougars lost 42-16. Because of injuries, they were using the third of four quarterbacks that season. They had begun with John Walsh, then Steve Clements and now Ryan Hancock was under center. Later, Tom Young, brother of you-know-who, would fill in.
But what few know is that a small part of the movie was filmed during the first-ever BYU-Irish contest.
There are no zoom-ins of LaVell Edwards, not even a fleeting glimpse of Cougar blue. Instead, Rudy’s teary dad huskily says of the moment, “This is the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen.”
The Cougars might beg to disagree.
* * *
The slight clue for Ralph Zobell, who still works in BYU’s sports information office, was when the marching band came onto the field. Something different was taking place. He could see boom microphones strategically placed. Notre Dame’s SID, Roger Valdiserri, had mentioned in passing that someone was making a film about Irish football, but didn’t elaborate.
As it turned out, it was a glorious football afternoon, the scent of autumn leaves, 69 degrees at kickoff.
The Cougars had first-and-10 at their own 6-yard line in the first quarter. But a high snap forced Hancock to lunge. He collided with someone and the ball squirted into the end zone, where Demetrius DuBose recovered for a Notre Dame touchdown.
The crowd roared to its feet and the cameras were there to catch it.
Little did anyone in attendance know the crowd scene would be relived thousands of times via movie screens and TV/video replays. It was used to depict the moment when Rudy subbed in at game’s end.
The next year, when the movie came out, Zobell attended, knowing something few others did: the Cougars had been extras in one of the most beloved sports films of all time.
“I tell people that, because I was there,” Zobell says.
Too bad for the Cougars that their scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.
* * *
BYU actually had its own Rudy moment that day.
Tim Nowatzke was an unheralded receiver from Michigan City, Ind., a 45-minute drive from Notre Dame. The Cougars stayed in his hometown because they couldn’t find enough hotel rooms in South Bend.
Nowatzke wasn’t listed on the two-deep. Still, with numerous family members living in the area, he coaxed 80 tickets from teammates and officials.
It’s a good thing he did. Coach LaVell Edwards put him in the game, and in the third quarter, with the Cougars trailing 21-9, Nowatzke caught a touchdown pass. Though the Irish prevailed, there was certain symmetry to the situation.
Just as the Ruettiger’s story was taking shape, Nowatzke was living a dream of his own.
* * *
Hollywood didn’t disappoint.
“AFI 100 Years” rated “Rudy” the 54th most-inspiring film of all time, in any genre.
When the film came out, the Irish’s opponent wasn’t BYU; it was Georgia Tech — aptly played by Boston College.
Since BC was in South Bend two weeks after the Cougars, the filmmakers decided to cast the gold-helmeted Eagles as Georgia Tech, the Irish's 1975 opponent when Ruettiger had his day.
“Rudy” went on to be a hit, a based-on-a-true-story piece about a kid who wouldn’t give up.
As for the Cougars, at least they can say they warmed up the crowd.
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