It happened again the other night. I couldn't quite get to sleep. I flipped on the TV and surfed until I spotted the 1993 movie "Rudy." The film was just beginning. By the time it was over, it was well past midnight. I've done the same thing with "Glory" (1989) and "The Tuskegee Airmen" (1995). I can't pull myself away until the credits start rolling at the end.
Ultimately, these are movies that have viewers feeling good by the time they end. They are about real people who no doubt benefit from the re-telling of their stories by Hollywood, but the films still are about underdogs who persevered against unbelievable odds to succeed.
I enjoy these films so much I can't pass them up when I discover them on the air, even if watching leaves me a little sleep-deprived.
All three chronicle the lives of people who were unsung heroes, at least for a time. Their broadest notoriety did not come for decades and — in the case of a black infantry unit in the Civil War — not for more than a century. In two of these films, individual identities were virtually lost in "unsung groups."
"Rudy" is the true story of Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, son of a Joliet, Ill., steel mill worker. The diminutive Rudy becomes obsessed with the unlikely dream of being accepted at Notre Dame University and playing football for the "Fighting Irish."
Finally, the dyslexic Rudy is accepted to Notre Dame as a junior transfer from Holy Cross and — at 5-6 and 165 pounds — makes the Notre Dame practice squad as a walk-on, showing endurance even as he takes a physical beating on every play to bring the best out of the starters. He dreams of finally getting to suit up for the final home game of the season. Coach Dan Devine initially refuses his request but relents when the rest of the team pleads Rudy's case.
By the time the defensive player gets into the game on the final couple of plays, the whole stadium is chanting his name. On the last play, when the game has already been decided in favor of the Irish, Rudy sacks the opposing quarterback and is carried off the field on the shoulders of his appreciative teammates.
"Glory," set in the Civil War, was based on the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first units of the U.S. Army to be made up entirely of African-American men. The story is told from the point of view of its commanding officer, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and deals with efforts to train the soldiers and gain respect for the regiment as a legitimate fighting force.
Ultimately, the 54th is allowed to engage in combat and wins a skirmish against Confederates at St. James Island in South Carolina. Soon after that, the Union plans a massive attack on nearby Fort Wagner, reachable only by a slice of beach with almost no cover.
Realizing the first wave of Union attackers will sustain massive casualties, Shaw still volunteers his unit and then leads them in the charge at daybreak. He and most of his troops perish in the attack on the fort, which the Union never would capture. Their courage is credited with the creation of other black units; by the end of the war, 180,000 black soldiers were in uniform.
"The Tuskegee Airmen" is set in World War II, and the black flyers fight the same prejudices as their Civil War forebears. Ultimately they emerge as the 332nd Fighter Group, assigned to Ramitelli, Italy, to provide escort for B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers, which are experiencing significant losses. The flyers distinguish themselves and, in a defining mission, the Tuskegee Airmen are assigned to escort the bombers on a raid on Berlin. A bomber pilot specifically asks for them as escorts, even though they are black.
At the end, the film notes that 66 out of the 450 Tuskegee Airmen died in battle; they defeated Messerschmitt Me 262s, the first operational jet fighters; and they were awarded a total of 850 medals over the course of the war. Amazingly, the 332nd never lost a bomber to enemy fire.
In church life, unsung heroes draw their satisfaction from serving others and serving God. They don't seek notoriety, but occasionally broader recognition finds them. They are like the people in the movies who lost themselves in places like a football practice squad, a Civil War infantry unit or an escort squadron.
Ask church leaders about unsung heroes in their congregations and they tend to point to long-time Bible teachers of low-profile classes made up of children, or perhaps young people with special needs. Or to those who quietly go about faithful visits to shut-ins. Or keep track of the needs of the less fortunate. Or care for babies in the church nursery.
While they are usually not honored with banquets or trophies, unsung heroes garner the appreciation of those they serve one person at a time. They become a part of the lives of countless people who never forget them nor their faithful presence in their lives.
These unsung heroes are all around us, and it is a good thing to affirm them for faithful service. We as individuals, churches and communities would be poorer without them. They are gifts from God. Sing their praises.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.