Scoring an Underdog: The Story Behind Rudy's Enduring Soundtrack

Publish date:

On the soggy afternoon of October 13, 2012, Notre Dame and Stanford faced off in South Bend. For the 5-0 Irish, the stakes couldn’t have been higher: A loss likely would’ve knocked them out of national title contention. As the tight game barreled toward overtime, the wind picked up, rain fell heavily, and during breaks in the action, speakers pumped the Rudy score into Notre Dame Stadium. That particular music choice, Notre Dame band director Dr. Ken Dye contends, added to the already-cinematic atmosphere. “It has one of those heartfelt melodies, and also has a faster section with pulsating action,” he says. In other words: it was the perfect soundtrack for the evening.

Over the past 20 years, that movie score has become the go-to musical accompaniment when a touch of inspiration is needed, adding drama to football games, political rallies, movie trailers, montages, and commercials.On October 13, 1993, Rudy hit theaters, awakening the small, white defensive end in all of us. The movie, based on Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, the undersized Notre Dame walk-on who famously dressed for a single game in 1975, grossed nearly $23 million and became a cult classic. But for as iconic as the story of its central character has become, the movie's most enduring contribution to American pop culture may well be late composer Jerry Goldsmith’s uplifting score. 

“He felt music,” Rudy screenwriter Angelo Pizzo says of Goldsmith, who died in 2004 after a long fight with cancer. “He didn’t just compose music. It wasn’t about the technique. It was about the heart.”

The story of Goldsmith’s relationship with Pizzo and Rudy director David Anspaugh is almost as unlikely as Ruettiger’s. It began in the mid-1980s, when the two thirtysomething filmmakers teamed up to make Hoosiers. While shooting the movie, their first, Anspaugh and Pizzo reached out to several high-profile composers. But there was a problem: “We had no money,” Anspaugh says. The budget for Hoosiers was a paltry $6 million.

Somehow, executive producer Carter DeHaven managed to convince Goldsmith to at least consider scoring the 1950s-era basketball flick. That alone was a coup. The composer was an Academy Award winner—for 1977's The Omen—and perennial nominee. Moreover, as Goldsmith’s daughter Carrie explains, “My dad was not a sports person. Not in the least.” According to her, his fandom consisted of occasionally checking the Dodgers score in the newspaper. But he nevertheless agreed to view a rough cut of the movie, which had been temporarily outfitted with music from The Natural.

The screening, in a room at Goldwyn Studios in Los Angeles, started ominously. DeHaven, Pizzo, and Anspaugh sat in the back row. Goldsmith sat in the front. “We didn't watch one foot of the movie,” Anspaugh says. “We just kept watching Jerry to see  his reaction. He never moved a muscle.” Pizzo says they were convinced Goldsmith fell asleep.

When the movie ended and the lights came up, Goldsmith remained seated. Anspaugh remembers thinking, Let’s go, he’s embarrassed. He doesn’t want to say anything. We better get out of here and let him make a graceful exit. Then Goldsmith turned around. His eyes were red and puffy. “You son of a bitch,” he said to DeHaven, who’d arranged the screening. “You knew I’d fall for this movie.”

Soon the composer and the first-time director were on a plane to Budapest, where they would work with the Hungarian State Orchestra to save money. The resulting Hoosiers score, which featured electronic elements (rare for a period piece), would end up being nominated for an Oscar. But even before that happened, Pizzo says that Goldsmith made a promise to the filmmakers: “Whatever movie you guys do next, I’ll do it. I don’t care what. That’s a commitment.”

That project happened to be Rudy. When Pizzo and Anspaugh got the go-ahead to start filming, they sent Goldsmith the script. He started composing right away. “That's not usual thing, unless you have a working relationship like [Steven] Spielberg and John Williams do,” Pizzo says. “We had the basic theme in our heads when we were shooting the movie.”

To this day, Pizzo has a hard time ranking his own films—but, “I have a favorite score. The Hoosiers score is great. The Rudy score is greater.” And it was unquestionably effective. When Rudy was released, Dallas Morning News critic Phillip Wuntch wrote, “Everything about Rudy, including the ever-rousing Jerry Goldsmith score, reeks of root-for-the-underdog calculation.” As SI’s Franz Lidz put it: “The subtle-as-a-cattle-prod score reaches a deafening crescendo, and Rudy’s teammates carry him off the field.”

The Rudy soundtrack did indeed lower its head and barrel straight toward sentimentality, but it fit. “If you’re looking for an inspirational score,” wrote Film Tracks, “there are few that can compete with Rudy.” Unlike Hoosiers, the Rudy score didn’t land an Oscar nomination. But it has been validated in other ways. Not long after Rudy's release, bits of the score started showing up in movie trailers for tearjerkers The Cure(1995), Courage Under Fire(1996), and The Deep End of the Ocean(1999), sports movies Angels in the Outfield(1994), and Seabiscuit(2003), and mockingly, in two slapstick comedies released in 1998: Mafia!and BASEketball.

For a stretch in the early 2000s, Oklahoma football was using “The Final Game,” the track played during Rudy’s climactic scene, as its entrance music. In 2008, the Rudy score became one of the John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign’s introductory anthems. “Once they arrived in the arena, Mr. McCain and Ms. Palin spent 10 minutes just working their way through the crowd to the podium as Jerry Goldsmith’s stirring theme from the football movie ‘Rudy’ washed over them, ” Katharine Q. Seelye of the New York Times wrote from an event in Pennsylvania. (Goldsmith’s daughter Carrie, Anspaugh, and Pizzo agree that he wouldn’t have liked that at all.) Dick’s Sporting Goods even joined in recently, using the cut played over Rudy’s walk-on tryouts montage, in a commercial.

Then there are those times when the music accompanies real-life drama, such as that afternoon last October, when Notre Dame and Stanford played to a stalemate in regulation. In overtime the Irish took a seven-point lead on a seven-yard TJ Jones touchdown pass from Tommy Rees; then, with the Rudy score intermittently swirling around them, they sealed the 20-13 victory with a goal-line stand.

Did the tune propel Notre Dame to victory? Not important. What matters is simply that it feels like the kind of music that can do so. “When all the chips are down,” band director Dye says of the soundtrack, “it’s really good.”

Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. Contact him at

and follow him on Twitter @alansiegeldc.