I can still hear the chords play from the soundtrack of the movie “Rudy” in my mind. This movie mesmerized me the moment I first watched it. I connected with Rudy Ruettiger instantly. His mission closely resembled mine growing up. Instead of Notre Dame being my team of choice, it was the Alabama Crimson Tide. However, it was not to be. I never walked on to play for Alabama. Although, I would see the same dream manifest itself before my very eyes with another “Rudy”- Rudy Griffin. Witnessing him accomplish his dream was just as satisfying, if not more.
It was the fall semester of 2003 and I had just been accepted onto the student strength and conditioning staff under Coach Ben Pollard at the University of Alabama. Walking into the workout facility my last semester there seemed like something out of a dream. Seeing all the players that I was accustomed to cheering for on Saturdays left me star struck. Yes, a 22-year old college senior was acting like a “fan boy”. That sentiment changed quickly as I grew more accustomed to being around these athletes. While still celebrities, they morphed into friends. I found they were just like me. I became closer to some players more than others; like this one kid from Hepzibah, Georgia who decided to walk on to college football’s most historic squad.
Rudy Griffin played two years for The Citadel: The Military College of South Carolina, before transferring to Tuscaloosa. He was overlooked as a high school athlete by virtually all schools except for this one. Although it was not Alabama, Rudy found comfort in the fact that his head coach at the time, Coach Ellis Johnson, had been a former assistant coach with the Crimson Tide. He felt that if he couldn’t play for Bama, this was the next best thing. Griffin found success during his first two seasons in Charleston, South Carolina. However, his heart was still yearned for something different. “That itch came back after my sophomore year. I felt like it was now or never. I prayed about it, and God told me to make a move. So, I moved,” Rudy said. Coming to the realization that he could wait no longer, Rudy marched into Coach Johnson’s office to announce he would be leaving for a chance in Tuscaloosa. Surprisingly to him, he was met with pushback from his head coach. “He thought that I was making a huge mistake. He said ‘Rudy no! You’re not transferring’. He reminded me of the commitment I had made and that I was walking out on my teammates,” Griffin recalled. After some time of going back and forth, Ellis finally conceded and granted him his release.
That summer, without a plan in place, Rudy, his dad, and sister drove from Augusta, Georgia to the Alabama practice facility in Tuscaloosa. Armed with a set of VHS tapes composed of highlights from his time at the Citadel, Rudy approached the team secretary positioned just beyond the front entrance. He asked if any of the Tide coaching staff would be able to meet with him. She informed Griffin that the coaches were in meetings. Politely, she asked him to leave his tapes with a promise someone would follow up. He declined and informed her that he would wait no matter how long it took.
He and his family had arrived at 8:00 a.m. that morning, but it wasn’t until 1:30 pm that someone finally agreed to see him. That someone was the Director of Football Operations, Randy Ross. He acknowledged Rudy’s intentions of becoming a walk-on and gave assurance that his tapes would be reviewed. Just as the secretary had done before, Ross informed the hopeful sophomore that he would be in touch. This sentiment was declined as well. The increasingly determined Rudy urged Coach Ross to review the film while he waited, and said that he didn’t mind waiting for however long it would take. Ross agreed. Even more time passed as the Griffin family waited. However, their efforts were soon about to be rewarded. Suddenly, out walked Coach Ross, but this time he was accompanied by defensive ends coach, Paul Randolph. Coach Randolph explained that although he could not guarantee a walk-on spot that day, he liked his film and suggested Rudy return to Tuscaloosa next spring for the 2003 walk- on tryout. The family drove home still not knowing if their time spent in the Tide offices that day accomplished anything at all.
Rudy had no school, no more scholarship, and no place to play when he arrived back to Augusta that night. He had risked it all on a dream God placed in his heart, and things looked bleak. However, Rudy did not give up. He called Coach Randolph at least twice a week all summer long! Thankfully, his faith would only have to get him through the summer because 2 weeks before fall camp began, a recruited player failed to qualify and Coach Randolph got to finally deliver the news Griffin had left college for. He was invited to become a part of the storied Alabama Crimson Tide program as a walk-on for fall 2003. Rudy was elated. “I was fired up. It was my opportunity. I couldn’t wait for fall camp,” he exclaimed. His dreams were finally being realized. However, this accomplishment was just a small preview of even greater things to come.
The 2003 season was part of a tumultuous time for the program. A once proud giant in college football had been wounded by scandal and probation. It didn’t remotely resemble the victorious atmosphere of the Nick Saban era. Former Alabama quarterback Mike Shula had been tapped for the task of resurrecting the Crimson Tide as its newly hired head coach. He would lean heavily on the stability of his head strength and conditioning coach, Ben Pollard, to right the ship. It was also because of Coach Pollard that I would eventually cross paths with Rudy Griffin. I had been delegated the task of assisting in the development of redshirted and walk-on players. Little did I know that I had been handed the very group of young men, led by Griffin, who would be responsible for turning the Crimson Tide around.
One afternoon, after workouts, former linebacker Cornelius Wortham, defensive end Todd Bates, and a few other players had gathered in the workout facility. Cornelius scanned the top of the room, and all around. He was scanning the portraits of former Alabama players who had been named to All-American teams. It had been a while since the Crimson Tide had a player who carried this famed honor. Something began to stir within him. He turned to his teammates and asked with a frustrated tone, “Why can’t we have anyone on the wall? Why not us? When are we going to have someone else on that wall?” This wasn’t just a topic for conversation. It was a call to arms. Wortham’s plea echoed through the room. Rudy Griffin and former defensive end Wallace Gilberry were stopped in their tracks. They looked at one another and then back to Cornelius Wortham. With expressions of unmistakable determination, they nodded their heads in agreement. What I would see next from Griffin was nothing short of spectacular.
Rudy Griffin was redshirted that 2003 season, but this did not deter his efforts. There was an unrelenting fire that burned deep within him. I remember the intensity radiating from his eyes during every workout session. He was a man who would not be denied the call that God placed on his life.
We arrived at the workout facility most mornings at 4:45 a.m. Rudy would drive the weights to the sky every rep. What I recall most about him during those days, was his infectious smile and incredible focus. His attitude spread throughout the facility. I could tell that he enjoyed every moment. “I was happy and blessed to be out there. I mean, everyone knows what the life of a practice player is like. We did all the dirty work. I never took it for granted. I relished it,” Griffin explained. This work ethic did not go unnoticed by anyone. He went on to win several awards, including the Practice Player of the Year. He was living his dream, but coming up, his path would take a slight detour.
In John 13:7, it reads, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” This particular passage would become very applicable to the next phase of Rudy’s journey. Despite his accomplishments, he was faced with large obstacle that threatened his mission. At the Citadel, his education was paid for due to a full scholarship. That wasn’t the case at Alabama. He was paying tuition on his own, and his resources were running out. As the season came to a close, he requested to speak with Head Coach Shula and the rest of the defensive coaching staff. Although he was uncertain of the outcome, he knew in order to keep his dream alive, he had to plead his case. After being greeted warmly by the coaches, Griffin confidently presented his many accomplishments. Begrudgingly, Mike Shula informed the dedicated scout-teamer that he did not have a scholarship for that following spring. This pained the first year coach, but due to limited scholarships because of NCAA sanctions, his hands were tied. Rudy understood, and expressed his appreciation for the opportunity to pursue his dream at Alabama. “Well, Coaches, I want to thank you for this great opportunity you have given me. You took a young boy whose childhood dream was to play for The University of Alabama, and I’ve done that.” Fighting back tears, Griffin admitted, “I didn’t get in the game or anything, but I practiced, and I appreciate that!” He explained that he would be withdrawing because he couldn’t afford to attend school any longer. “They got up and I shook their hands,” said Griffin. Coach Ross said, “Rudy, we thought you did a great job.” Dejected, Griffin left the office and returned back to his dorm. The fall semester was over and it was time to pack up.
Back in Georgia, at his parents’ home, Rudy Griffin sat trying to map out the next chapter in his life. He spent a lot of time in prayer and meditation. Although his current situation was very unsettling, he fully placed his trust in God. Psalms 37:4 states, “Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” For Rudy Griffin, this verse could not be more fitting for what was about to happen next. Christmas morning, the phone rang. It was a “205” number, and this puzzled Griffin. He thought to himself, “Who is calling me in the 205?” He hesitated, but answered the call. “Hey Rudy! What are you doing,” the voice questioned. At first, he didn’t recognize who he was talking to, but after a few more words, he realized it was Coach Mike Shula. He told Shula that he was in the process of figuring out his next move. Before he could go further, Shula interrupted him. “Hey, Rudy, we don’t normally do this, but I wanted to give you a Christmas present. We’ve got full athletic scholarship for you- a full ride scholarship to the University of Alabama. You earned it.”, Coach Shula said. It was a surreal moment. His faith and hard work had gotten him all the way through!
Rudy Griffin, not only rejoined his team on the practice field that spring, but also went on to become a two year starter for the Alabama Crimson Tide. He was an Academic All-SEC performer, recipient of the Billy Neighbors Most Improved Defensive Lineman Award, SEC Player of the week vs. Mississippi State, and Game Captain of the 2006 Cotton Bowl. To top it off, before a game during his tenure, he received a call from none other than Rudy Ruettiger- the “Original Rudy”. His time with his dream school was nothing short of something we’d see on a movie screen.
Today, Rudy Griffin is “Coach Griffin”, and is pouring into the lives of his own players. After coaching D1 college ball for almost a decade, Griffin is the recently appointed, Head Football Coach of Bessemer City High School. His impact on the lives of his young athletes will be powerful, and will instill within them a lasting legacy of perseverance. I couldn’t be more proud of him. 1 Peter 5:6 says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” For Rudy Griffin, this is due time.
I am a 2003 graduate from the University of Alabama with a degree in Exercise Science. While at the Capstone, I served as a student assistant with the head strength and conditioning coach of the Crimson Tide football team. I have competed in both powerlifting and bodybuilding for several years. In addition, I have served athletes and people through the arena of personal training. Jesus is my Lord and Savior. I am a passionate fan of Alabama, but do not make other fan bases miserable because of it. College football has my heart first, but I cover all areas of sports. Follow me on Twitter: @justinriley7!