What's the line on 'Rudy' vs. 'We are Marshall'? Both Irish, Herd boast box office hits

Justin Frommer
ND Insider
The movie posters for "Rudy," the story about a young man who fights to overcome his circumstances in order to achieve his dream of playing football for Notre Dame. TriStar Pictures (courtesy)

SOUTH BEND — It's a debate that almost always evokes smiles, artful critique, impassioned pleas, disbelief and, more often than not, no real resolution.

What is the best sports movie? In this case, what is the best sports movie regarding a football team?

Former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn and two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Eli Manning pondered that very question this past summer while sitting in an empty Notre Dame Stadium.

How could the conversation not start with "Rudy," the 1993 classic true story about an overachiever named Dan "Rudy" Rutteger from Joliet, Ill. who had a dream to play for the Fighting Irish, if not the credentials.

Video:Eli Manning and Brady Quinn discuss their all-time favorite football films

"If I am putting 'Any Given Sunday' here (motioning with his hand), I am putting 'Rudy' way up there (above it)," Quinn told Manning during the recent filming of ESPN's Eli's Places. "'The Waterboy' is somewhere up there, too. 'All The Right Moves,' 'The Longest Yard,' 'Varsity Blues.'"

Manning interjects "Little Giants," too.

But what about "We Are Marshall"? The 2006 heart-wrenching true story recounts the tragic 1970 charter plane crash that killed 75 people, including 37 Marshall University football players, five coaches and two athletic trainers in Huntington, W. Va., as the team returned from a game at East Carolina in Greenville, N.C. There were no survivors.

Only a handful of real college football programs have had movies made about them. Notre Dame most famously was the original with 1940s "Knute Rockne All-American" starring future President Ronald Reagan as George Gipp.

Mike Gabel of Akron, Ohio takes a photo with Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger before the game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Duke Blue Devils at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, it's "Rudy" vs. "We Are Marshall" as No. 8 Notre Dame (0-1) plays Marshall (1-0) for the first time in program history, pitting one of college football's most storied programs against one of the sports' all-time great stories.

The Irish are around a three touchdown favorite in the game, but how do the two movies match-up? Both feature known Hollywood stars — Sean Astin, Ned Beatty and Vince Vaughn in "Rudy"; Matthew McConaughey, David Strathairn and Anthony Mackie in "We Are Marshall." Both were filmed on the respective cities and campuses. Both featured a dramatic end-game sequence.

"Rudy is probably my favorite sports movie of all time, even more than Rocky and everything else," said USA Today Movie Critic Brian Truitt. "Everyone always looks to Rocky because all of the underdog drama and stories kind of compare to that. What is more impressive about Rudy, Rocky gets to the point where he is training and looks like he can beat Apollo Creed. It is believable he could draw or beat Apollo. The thing about Rudy, that little dude doesn’t get bigger.

"What's even more impressive is what the real guy went through to get to that point and how uplifting and life-affirming that whole movie is. This little guy (played in the movie by Sean Astin) will not quit with all of these behemoths around him."

Sean Astin portrays 'Rudy' Ruettiger in the filming of "Rudy" at the University of Notre Dame.  South Bend Tribune archive photo

Directed by David Anspaugh, who also directed 1986's "Hoosiers," "Rudy follows the true-story journey of Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, who worked from Holy Cross College student, to Notre Dame football walk-on, to practice squad player and eventually recorded a sack in a game against Georgia Tech.

Truitt believes "Rudy", which was rated as one of the top-30 sports movies by Rolling Stone in 2020, brings viewers together through the love of sports, its football scenes and montages, and the underdog story of "getting behind the little guy".

"Rudy is just magnificently edited and made because everything builds to that (play)," Truitt said. "There is no random tangents, lack of focus. It is all about Rudy and having Rudy’s life build around him, not only football, but his education, learning about life and just having the friends and allies he makes. Everything is geared toward him being on that field at the end of the game and it being the cathartic release for us as an audience... It is not that he matters to the score of the game, but he matters to the game."

More:Jerome Bettis is a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Sunday he became a Notre Dame graduate, too

For others, like Gizmodo Senior Reporter Germain Lussier, "Rudy" puts his own dreams on the big screen. Growing up in New York in the 1980s and 90s, Lussier grew up with "Rudy" and Notre Dame football, originally watching the movie on VHS and following Irish football on NBC. He said he owned a Notre Dame starter jacket in middle school and had that built connection to the film.

"It is unique in that it feels like you," Lussier said. "If you are a person that loves football but can’t play football, which is like 99.9% of the world, Rudy is your movie because he can’t either. You actually connect with him on that level, I think."

With "We Are Marshall", Lussier said it was tough to put himself in the same scenario that program, university and city of Huntington, West Virginia were going through.

"We Are Marshall is such a horrific story," Lussier said. "Obviously it becomes an uplifting story, but you almost don’t want to put yourself in the mindset of those characters to lose all those friends and family. They do a good job of saying they rebuilt. It’s a different kind of emotional connection I think. Rudy is definitely my preferred one."

The movie poster for 2006's "We Are Marshall."

"We Are Marshall", directed in 2006 by Joseph McGinty "McG" Nichol, stars Matthew McConaughey as Marshall head coach Jack Lengyel as he rebuild Marshall's football program following the team's chartered flight crashing following the Thundering Herd's 17-14 loss to East Carolina.

The film, as a whole, isn't just a football movie and adding a human element of a town of 74,000-plus people in 1970s grieving together.

"There is some football, but there is not a lot of football plays," Truitt said of the movie. "It is more about this town coming back from this tragedy, losing the entire team, coaches and everything in that plane accident. It is more than just about this football team. It is about this town and the people moving on and coming back together to do this thing. ... There is a lot I like about We Are Marshall in terms of the performances."

One of those scenes, McConaughey's pre-game talk at the burial site of six members of the 1970 tragedy, sticks with Uproxx senior entertainment writer Mike Ryan, as a memorable moment of the film.

“I think McConaughey makes 'We Are Marshall,'" Ryan said. "He just sells it and you just want to root for him. He’s the reason that movie works."

It also works, because, like "Rudy", Marshall is a team viewers can rally behind as The Herd works through unprecedented challenges to rebuild its roster.

It's that point, Ryan believes, that is the most complicated aspect of the movie that revolves around unimaginable loss.

"I think Rudy is the better film," Ryan said. "I think We Are Marshall is the better story. It’s insanely tragic what happened to that team and the fact they could rebuild that program at all is remarkable.

"I think Rudy is the better film," Ryan said. "I think We Are Marshall is the better story. It’s insanely tragic what happened to that team and the fact they could rebuild that program at all is remarkable.

"But when Rudy gets on to the field I still get a chill down my spine every time. It’s a great moment in movies."

TALE OF THE TAPE: 'RUDY' vs. 'WE ARE MARSHALL' 

‘RUDY’ 

Plot: Rudy has always been told that he was too small to play college football. But he is determined to overcome the odds and fulfill his dream of playing for Notre Dame. 

Rudy | IMDb

Stars: Sean Astin (Daniel E. ‘Rudy’ Ruettiger); Jon Favreau (D-Bob); Ned Beatty (Daniel Ruettiger Sr.); Charles S. Dutton (Fortune); Lili Taylor (Sherry); Gary Becker (Father Ted); Jason Miller (Ara Parseghian); Ron Dean (Coach Yonto); Vince Vaughn (Jamie O’Hara); and Chelcie Ross (Dan Devine) 

Actor Sean Astin talks with a couple bar patrons during an appearance at Corby's in downtown South Bend on Friday, Sept. 21, 2012.

Released date: Oct. 22, 1993 

Director: David Anspaugh (Hoosiers, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Miami Vice) 

Writer: Angelo Pizzo (Hoosiers) 

Production company: TriStar Pictures 

Filming locations: South Bend, Ind.; University of Notre Dame; Holy Cross College; Joliet, Ill. 

Run time: 1 hour, 54 minutes 

Gross box office worldwide: $22,881,563 

Rotten Tomatoes score: Tomatometer 78%, Audience 90% 

QUOTABLE  

Scene: In the stadium after Rudy quits the team 

Rudy: I wanted to run out of that Tunnell for my dad to prove to everyone that I worked... 

Fortune: PROVE WHAT? 

Rudy: That I was somebody. 

Fortune: Oh you are so full of crap. Your five foot nothin', a hundred and nothin' and hardly have a spec of athletic ability and you hung in with the best college football team in the land for two years, and you were also going to walk out of here with a degree from the University of Norte Dame in this life time you don't have to prove nothing to nobody except yourself and after what you gone through if you haven't done that by now, it ain’t gonna never happen, now go on back. 

Scene: Rudy’s family enters Notre Dame Stadium for the first time 

Daniel Ruettiger Sr.: This is the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen. 

Scene: In the tunnel before leading the team onto the field 

Steele: Are you ready for this, champ? 

Rudy: I’ve been ready for this my whole life? 

Scene: In the stadium after Rudy’s sack: 

D-Bob: Who’s the wild man now? 

‘WE ARE MARSHALL’ 

Plot: When a plane crash claims the lives of members of the Marshall University football team and some of its fans, the team's new coach and his surviving players try to keep the football program alive. 

We Are Marshall | IMDb

Stars: Matthew McConauhey (Jack Lengyel), Anthony Mackie (Nate Ruffin), David Strathairn (President Dedmon), Ian McShane (Paul Griffen), January Jones (Carole Dawson).  

Matthew McConaughey stands on the sideline before Texas's annual spring football game at Royal Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas on April 23, 2022.

Aem Texas Spring Football 2022 8

Released date: Dec. 22, 2006 

Director: McG (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle; Terminator Salvation; and The Babysitter: Killer Queen) 

Writers: Screenplay, Jamie Linden (10 years, Dear John) and story, Cory Helms 

Production company: Warner Bros., Thunder Road Pictures and Legendary Entertainment 

Filming locations: Atlanta, Huntington, W. Va.; Marshall University and Kenova, W. Va. 

Run time: 2 hours, 11 minutes 

Gross box office worldwide: $43,545,364 

Rotten Tomatoes score: Tomatometer 49%, audience 79% 

QUOTABLE  

Scene: At the cemetery before the Xavier game. 

Jack Lengyel: This is your opportunity to rise from these ashes and grab glory. We are! 

Young Thundering Herd: MARSHALL! 

Jack Lengyel: We are! 

Young Thundering Herd: MARSHALL! 

Jack Lengyel: Funerals end today! 

Scene: In the locker room after a contentious practice 

Nat Ruffin: Coach, that … was my team. They left it in my hands. 

Jack Lengyel: No … no, they did not. They just left. 

GameDay

Marshall (1-0) vs. No. 8 Notre Dame (0-1) 

  • When: Saturday at 2 :30 p.m. 
  • Where: Notre Dame Stadium (77,622), South Bend, Ind. 
  • TV/Radio: NBC/Peacock, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM) 
  • Line: Notre Dame is favored by 20½ points 
  • Series: First meeting between the programs