Move over Rudy, there's a new unlikely Irish hero who walked the Notre Dame campus and was plucked from utter obscurity.
Rudy Ruettiger was the famous undersized walk-on, just 5' 6" and weighing 165 pounds who was determined to somehow play for Notre Dame. Anyone and everyone who supports Notre Dame knows his story intimately thanks to the hugely successful movie of his life, "Rudy."
What he lacked in height and skill he made up for in absolute determination and in the last game of the 1975 season coach Dan Devine gave Rudy his immortal moment when he put him in for three plays. He was carried off the field by his teammates, who recognized his true grit, only the second player ever to be accorded that honor. The movie “Rudy” spread his name and fame nationwide. Rudy has since made a living as a motivational speaker based on that famous moment.
Now step forward Joe Lapira, a 20-year-old star college soccer star with Notre Dame, who found himself plucked from utter obscurity to play for the Irish international soccer team in a game against Ecuador at Giants Stadium in Meadowlands in May 2007.
He became the first amateur player to play for Ireland since 1964 and his path to an international soccer cap was every bit as underdog and extraordinary as Rudy.
Lapira was an outstanding collegiate soccer player at Notre Dame and his Irish-born mother told her brother in Ireland, a soccer official, about his talent.
The Irish panel put together to pay an international series against Ecuador and Bolivia that summer was decimated by injuries and withdrawals with no fewer than 23 players withdrawing from the initial squad either because of injury or fatigue at the end of a season. There was also little interest in playing in a meaningless international tournament.
Irish manager Stephen Staunton was forced to cast far and wide for replacements which is where Joe Lapira and his Irish uncle came in.
Lapira was in Texas when the call came to join the Irish side. He found himself booked on a flight from Houston to New Jersey where the Irish squad was staying. “All the players flew in together from Ireland – I flew in from Houston, Texas,” he told Independent.ie.
“I get to the airport and I don't have anyone's contact information. I'm thinking, 'what the hell', because nobody has come to pick me up. I had to call my uncle and he called some people. The guy from the FAI had gone to the international arrivals. He had assumed I was an international player coming from Ireland.
“I thought I was just going to be training with the guys,” Lapira says.
“I think I might have tried to fly around the Ireland training session like a maniac but then we did a drill when I went in the middle and I was nutmegged like 45 times in a row.
“Kevin Kilbane (a famous Irish international) was there. I was like 'holy God, I watched you on TV the other day.' There were loads of guys there that I watched on a weekly basis and others like Shane Long (famed premiership player). It is crazy that I was in the same team.
One moment proved truly special. “My uncle worked for the FAI and he got me Packie Bonner's autograph when I was a kid,” he says.
Lapira’s idol was Bonner, the Irish goalkeeper, and he carried his photograph in his wallet. “I had it in my wallet growing up and then I lost it and was devastated. The biggest thing for me when I was with the team 15 years later was getting into an elevator and Packie Bonner was standing there with me. I couldn't even open my mouth, I was just like 'holy crap, Packie Bonner is here beside me.'”
“The day before the match I asked if I needed to get a ticket so I could sit in the stand for the game,” Lapira says.
“They said, 'no you're going to be in the squad'. I just thought, 'holy s**t, I'm going to get an Ireland jersey, I'm going to get to wear it and I'm going to get to sit on the bench. This is phenomenal!’.”
Lapira found himself on the bench as an entire row of family and friends and Notre Dame colleagues arrived to watch the game.
Towards the end of the game the manager decided he was going to bring on a few substitutes. “They told everyone to go and warm-up and we had been doing that for most of the game,” Lapira says.
“I was juggling the ball on the sideline in front of the Irish fans, and I had about 20 friends in the crowd, so I thought that was all amazing. I remembered they called down for a sub, and one of the lads ran over and then came back to where I was and told me that they were calling for me.”
It was the 86th minute and a little bit of history was about to be made.
“I didn't know if my legs were even working right then. My friends chanted ‘Notre Dame’ from the Irish section when I came on. I couldn't tell you a single thing that happened in the game. I can't remember what happened. Next thing I knew it was after the game and I had a cap for Ireland.”
Lapira went on to play for a tiny cub in the Norwegian Second Division after trying out for bigger clubs, but injuries dogged him.
But Irish interest in his story continues.
About a year ago, the 30-year-old heard from Cathal O’Reilly, a fan from Dunshaughlin, Meath, who had been trying to track Lapira down along with his friends.
“About five years ago, around 15 of us started The Joe Lapira FIFA Tournament, we play it twice a year,” O’Reilly told Independent.ie.
“Joe Lapira was a cult hero in our group because of his status as a one-cap Irish player who came in and came out and was gone into the smoke before you knew what had happened.
“We always looked up to him in that sense because it was our boyhood dreams to play for Ireland and he got to achieve it. We were amateur footballers with dreams of playing and that's what he did."
“I got a couple of calls from an Irish number that wasn't from my family,” Lapira told Independent.ie.
“I had two voicemails and it was one of the guys like, 'Hey Joe, I just wanted to tell you that we're all big fans and we have a FIFA Tournament, and a Twitter handle and a trophy. It's a real tournament! Anyway, here's the lads, and here's a song' and then they started singing 'There's only one Joe Lapira.'
“It was a really long voicemail and I didn't know what was happening. Then there was a second voicemail that was more like, 'We just wanted to say, we're not crazy, we aren't maniacs!'”
Playing for Ireland was a foolish dream for Lapira. “All I wanted to do was to go to college and play soccer, that's how wide my goal was.”
“I almost died when I saw that flag (with his face on it). If I had been walking through France (site of the European Championship tournament) and saw my face plastered on a giant flag, I might have actually had a heart attack.
“I thought it was incredibly weird when I heard they had the tournament, but when I heard why they did it, I thought it was really cool.”
Cool enough to make him another Rudy it seems, in Ireland anyway. Lapira works as a medical supply salesman now, but his one moment trotting out on the field against Ecuador will stay with him forever and has gone down in history. It was truly a Rudy moment.