This weekend, the teams of two legendary football programs will lock up in South Bend Indiana, when Texas visits Notre Dame for a game between teams and coaches with lots of questions that need answering.
When teams as storied as these compete, the narrative resonates through time, space and the souvenir wall in your basement. It's Bevo versus the Leprechaun! Urban Cowboys versus The Four Horsemen! Yellow Roses versus Shillelaghs! Ten gallon hats versus tam o'shanters! Rockne versus Royal! The Green versus the Orange! The Golden Dome versus the Tower! Touchdown Jesus versus Dashboard Jesus!
When stories like these get energized, people and money move in the world. Scalpers' prices for this weekend's game are reportedly the highest in the history of regular season college football. End zone seats are pushing $300 apiece on StubHub.
No one is in a better position to analyze Saturday's clash from a storytelling standpoint than is Angelo Pizzo, the screenwriter for Rudy (he also wrote Hoosiers), and the writer-director of My All American, a new feature film about Texas football legend Freddie Steinmark, which opens this November. Steinmark was a scrawny scrapper from Wheatridge High School in Denver who earned a place in every Texas football fan's heart in 1969 when he became his team's inspiration on its national championship run after learning he was dying of a rare form of cancer.
I asked Pizzo to compare his Notre Dame and Texas experiences. He begins by remarking on the chilly reception the Rudy filmmakers got from the Notre Dame athletic department:
"Rudy [Ruettiger, the title character]... was hardly representative of what Notre Dame produced in terms of their stars. Their heroes. So we did not get the greatest cooperation from the athletic department," he says.
"You've got to remember that we were the first movie crew allowed on the Notre Dame campus in fifty-four years, since Knute Rockne, All-American shot there. Lots of companies had tried. And of course those companies came with the big stories -- George Gipp and Frank Leahy and George Gipp and Ara Parseghian and Paul Hornung, and on and on. And the Notre Dame administration had turned them all down except us. The people in the athletic department said wait a second, after 54 years you're going to let someone make a movie about Notre Dame football, and it's going to be about a guy who played for all of 27 seconds?
"If it wasn't for the administration and Father Beauchamp, and ultimately people like the band director, who allowed us to shoot at halftime of a game, with Rudy making his tackle and getting carried off the field, we never would've made it past the athletic department. Because they were battling us every which way."
The greeting he and his crew got from the University of Texas athletic department was, he says, "night and day":
"When we arrived in Texas, Freddie Steinmark's story, unlike the Rudy story, was part of the tradition, and a living part of the ritual of Texas football today. That team touches Freddie's image before they run out onto the field before every home game. This is a very special story. Rudy's story was barely known."
The filmmaker reminds me that it always helps to have a case study:
"The athletic directors at Texas were well aware of the asset that Rudy became for Notre Dame," he says. "The sense of passion, the sense of belief, and the sense of support at Texas was about twenty times what it was at Notre Dame. In fairness, we wouldn't have had that kind of support if Rudy had not existed."
The value of telling the Freddie Steinmark story was something the Texas athletic department could measure in a way that Notre Dame could not when Pizzo pitched them on Rudy Ruettiger's story. The decision to let events in the life of an unknown walk-on who'd played all of 27 seconds speak for the football program and university could not have been divined from numbers and logic. The Notre Dame administrators, led by a Catholic priest, took a leap of faith. They bet on the story itself. And it has paid dividends to the university and its football program for two decades.
"Do you know Notre Dame screens that movie [Rudy] every night of Freshman orientation week?!" Pizzo exclaims. "They actively embrace it was part of who they are, as part of their identity." Who can blame him for sounding vindicated? Five head coaches and two athletic directors have come and gone. Rudy is still undefeated.
Ultimately, Pizzo says both stories, if not the football programs themselves, find common ground in the concept of faith.
"Catholicism has always played in Notre Dame's stories, and Freddie Steinmark and his family were all devout Catholics. He went to church every day, and wanted to go to Notre Dame when he was a boy.
"When I went to the leadership conference for the Texas high school football coaches, there were ten speakers, and they came from all different walks of life, and the one thing that they had in common was the importance of faith. I think it's the only word to use, because 'religion' doesn't quite get it. It's extremely important in those high schools, as far as I can see, and as far as I can understand.
"I'm a little loathe to make a grand statement about it," he continues, "but I can tell you that in my experience of making both movies, faith was extremely important."
And what about the game itself? What storyline would Pizzo like to see play out on Saturday? When I ask him, faith throws a block so commerce can make its cut into the open field:
"Our movie opens November. So with that in mind, I'm a Longhorn this weekend."
My All American, written and directed by Angelo Pizzo, starring Finn Whitrock as Steinmark and Aaron Eckhart as Texas coach Darryl K Royal, opens in U.S. theaters nationwide on November 13.