Sports Spectrum Magazine Summer 2021

Real-Life Rudy: The story of Rudy Griffin following God's call to the Alabama Crimson Tide

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. However, instead of Notre Dame being my team of choice, it was the Alabama Crimson Tide.

For me, though, it was not to be. I never walked on to play for Alabama. But during my time there 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.

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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 I was accustomed to cheering for on Saturdays left me starstruck. 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 Hephzibah, 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 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, S.C. However, his heart 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, 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. Yet, after some deliberating, Ellis finally conceded and granted Rudy his release.

Rudy Griffin

Rudy Griffin (Photo courtesy of Twitter/@Coach_R_Griffin)

***

That summer, without a plan in place, Rudy, his dad and sister drove from Augusta, Ga., 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, and she promised 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 a.m. that morning, but it wasn’t until 1:30 p.m. 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 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 to be rewarded. Suddenly, out walked Coach Ross, and 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 in 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.

Rudy’s faith would only have to get him through the summer, because two weeks before fall camp began, a recruited player failed to qualify. Coach Randolph got to finally deliver the news Griffin had left The Citadel for. He was invited to become a part of the storied Alabama Crimson Tide program as a walk-on for in the fall of 2003.

“I was fired up. It was my opportunity. I couldn’t wait for fall camp,” Rudy recalled.

His dreams were being realized. However, this accomplishment was just a small preview of even greater things to come.

“I prayed about it, and God told me to make a move. So, I moved.”
— Rudy Griffin

***

The 2003 season was part of a tumultuous time for the Alabama football 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 current 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, and 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, noticing all 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 became a call to arms. Wortham’s plea echoed through the room. 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. He 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 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 said.

This work ethic did not go unnoticed. He went on to win several awards, including the Practice Player of the Year.  He was living his dream — though a slight detour was ahead.

Rudy Griffin

Alabama defensive tackle Rudy Griffin responds during a press conference prior to the 2006 Cotton Bowl. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

***

In John 13:7, Jesus says, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” This particular passage would hit home in the next phase of Rudy’s journey.

Despite his accomplishments, he was faced with a 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 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, 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 continued, “I didn’t get in a 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,” Griffin recalled. 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 began 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. Psalm 37:4 states, “Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” For Griffin, this verse could not have been more fitting for what happened next.

On Christmas morning, the phone rang. It was a “205” number. He thought to himself, “Who is calling me from 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 Shula. He told Shula 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. Rudy’s faith and hard work had gotten him 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.” Griffin’s 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 Division-I college ball for almost a decade, Griffin is the recently-appointed head coach of Bessemer City High School in Alabama. 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.

First 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.

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