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Notre Dame's "Rudy" Ruettiger tells Bel Air crowd: "The only thing that's stopping you is your thoughts"

Daniel Ruettiger, the former Notre Dame football player who was the subject of the film "Rudy," spoke to and signed autographs for a crowd at the John Carroll School on Sunday, Sept. 20. (Bryna Zumer and Dan Griffin, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Despite reaching his dream of playing on Notre Dame's legendary football field, and later being the subject of a major Hollywood movie, Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger does not consider himself a success.

"I am not successful; I am happy. When you are happy, successful people want to be around you. That's the point," Ruettiger told about 300 people at The John Carroll School's auditorium Sunday, 40 years after his memorable stint as a walk-on helped the Fighting Irish win a game against Georgia Tech.

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The "afternoon with Rudy" at the Bel Air school was a fundraiser for John Carroll and Harford County's Office of Parks and Recreation.

Jimmy Malone, director of parks and rec, a former state delegate and a lifelong Notre Dame fan, helped bring Ruettiger, star of the 1993 "Rudy" film and now a motivational speaker, to Harford County.

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At 67 years old, Ruettiger seemed as incredulous as anyone about the path his life took, from the 1975 Georgia Tech game to the streets of Hollywood where he got the chance to meet movie stars as his movie was being developed.

Growing up in the "gritty, little, blue-collar town" of Joliet, Ill., as one of 14 children, Ruettiger practically worshipped Notre Dame, but he "just wasn't an academic kid."

"How could God give me a dream, a dream of going to Notre Dame, a dream of becoming somebody, and I'm a dummy, I'm nobody," Ruettiger wondered.

He was not too thrilled by his post-school job at the local power plant and, when a friend died in a car crash on the way to a Friday night game, "that is the moment I realized, your life is too short."

Parts of Ruettiger's journey veer away from his Hollywood portrayal. The movie does not show him going into the Navy before ultimately making it into Notre Dame.

His hands-on abilities in the military made him "start believing in Rudy again." The Navy also paid for him to go to college under the G.I. Bill, another detail the movie skips as it shows Ruettiger working at a steel mill to pay his way into Notre Dame.

Ruettiger, who was dyslexic, constantly worried his lack of knowledge and problems with school, despite his best efforts, would keep him from reaching his goal.

But, he said, the key is to focus on the positive and build relationships with supportive people.

"God has a funny way of giving you the answer when you get your mind away from goofy things," he said. "The only thing that is stopping you is your thoughts. Not the people – you."

Ruettiger went to Holy Cross Junior College before Notre Dame, with the golden dome of his dream school always in front of him.

"I think the only reason I got there [to college] was because of relationships, and the dean didn't want to see me no more," he joked, referring to his pestering of the college authorities, as well as anyone he could get to hear his story.

He had so much respect for Notre Dame that he was surprised to see his fellow students walking on the college grass.

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"They said, 'There's that crazy kid, walking on the sidewalk,'" Ruettiger recalled jokingly. "They said, 'What kind of grass are you on?'"

Notre Dame was not originally interested in being part of the "Rudy" movie.

Despite the college's reticence, he said: "They wouldn't have made that movie if it wasn't a Notre Dame story."

Ruettiger's time in the football spotlight is not just about Notre Dame, he said.

"It's not about the tackle. It's about the journey I took to get there," he said.

Bel Air's John Orsini and Tara Torpey were among those lining up after the speech to get an autograph from Ruettiger. Their 4-month-old baby, Quinn, was draped in a Notre Dame blanket.

"I thought it was incredible, and there was so much of Rudy's story that didn't make the movie," Orsini said about the event, noting his time in the Navy. "That's kind of a pretty big part of his life that didn't make it."

The crowd was filled with Fighting Irish fans from far and wide, buying small gold helmets, movie DVDs and books for Ruettiger to sign.

Patrick Starr, a 2008 Notre Dame graduate, traveled from Arlington, Va., with his family for the event.

"I have been curious to see him speak for a while," Starr said. "It's an inspirational story."

His fiancee, Veronica Swank, of Falls Church, Va., said it was "worth the drive."

"I think it was really motivational," she said, adding she liked his message of "Don't let people tell you you can't do something."

Minda Wesley, a soccer coach at Anne Arundel County's Severn School, heard about the Ruettiger event while visiting John Carroll for a game earlier this week.

"I have been a Notre Dame fan since I was born because of my grandpa," she said, explaining he also went to Notre Dame under the G.I. Bill.

"I think this is absolutely an inspiration," she said. "This is a movie that I usually show for [when we're] down in the dumps and need a little pick-me-up, so it's a great message. It was wonderful meeting him."

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