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The real ‘Rudy’ never expected his underdog classic to endure

Sean Astin stars in "Rudy" (1993). | SONY PICTURES

Sean Astin is pumped up and ready to run on the field.

His inspirational movie “Rudy” is returning to theaters nationwide at 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, after screening earlier on Tuesday as part of Fathom Events’ celebration of the sports classic’s 25th anniversary.

“It’s a great day in America!!!,” Astin tweeted.

The 1993 movie is based on a true underdog story. Astin stars as Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, a too-small player with a big enough heart to practice with the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team, and who makes history on his final play with the team.

“It feels like only yesterday. But it’s a timeless message,” says the real Rudy Ruettiger, now 69, who made the rounds in Hollywood for years before he found the right team willing to take on his sports story (“Hoosiers” director David Anspaugh and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo). “When we put this film out there, we didn’t know it would ever take off like it did.”

“Rudy” follows Ruettiger as he grows up in Joliet obsessed with Notre Dame football and dreams of playing against all odds. He was too small to be taken seriously on the field and initially didn’t have the grades (he was diagnosed with dyslexia after high school) to get into Notre Dame.

But he worked his way into the university and eventually toiled as a walk-on for the football practice squad. Amazingly, Ruettiger got to play in the final seconds of his final home game, the only time he was allowed to even suit up.

Ruettiger’s miracle sack in the final seconds of Notre Dame’s blowout over Georgia Tech in November 1975 meant nothing for the game — but it made history of the inspirational kind. His overjoyed fellow players carried Ruettiger off the field.

Rudy Ruettiger throws a ceremonial first pitch before the Chicago White Sox-Cleveland Indians game Monday September 24, 2012, at U.S. Cellular Field. | Sun-Times File
Rudy Ruettiger throws a ceremonial first pitch before the Chicago White Sox-Cleveland Indians game Monday September 24, 2012, at U.S. Cellular Field. | Sun-Times File

The world has changed since “Rudy” was first released, but people still love the movie.

“They love it because it breaks down barriers: political, religious, whatever,” Ruettiger says. “Itabout belief in yourself. That if you believe in yourself, everything is possible. That’s why the movie works.”

Along with Ned Beatty as Rudy’s father and Charles Dutton as the groundskeeper, Fortune (a composite character), “Rudy” gives a look at young Jon Favreau (as Rudy’s tutor D-Bob) and Vince Vaughn (as a talented Notre Dame player). “They had a thing going and went onto make ‘Swingers’ together afterward,” Ruettiger said.

He says the movie is even more meaningful 25 years on, as key figures in the film have since died, including Notre Dame football coach Dan Devine (played by Chelcie Ross). Robert Prosky, who starred as Father Cavanaugh, died in 2008. Jason Miller, who played legendary Coach Ara Parseghian, died in 2001; the real coach died last year.

Fans still ask Ruettiger about a key scene — in which his Notre Dame teammates line up to place their jerseys on Devine’s desk to persuade the coach to let Ruettiger suit up — and whether it really happened.

While Ruettiger readily concedes that the jersey scene was a fictional moment brought to his story by director David Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo, he says questioning its veracity misses the point.

“The people who really want to know the facts, they are missing the movie’s message,” says Ruettiger, who maintains the movie is 98 percent accurate. “The people who don’t care about the facts get the message.”

The screenings of “Rudy” will be accompanied by a Q&A with Ruettiger, filmed in front of a live audience at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre.