Faith Through The Fire - BJ Rudge

by BJ Rudge, Ph.D.

At the age of six, I started playing soccer. I didn’t like to practice nor did I see the importance of it. All I wanted was the excitement and challenge of the game and to score goals.

Having been a fitness instructor in the past with some soccer coaching experience, my dad knew that if I was going to be good and achieve my potential, I had to train. He made me practice every type of kick imaginable using both feet, run laps, and do various drills he would invent. He made me practice soccer in the rain, mud, and snow. Above all, he sought to teach me the importance of honoring the Lord and having a good attitude. I became so motivated and dedicated that I would train two to three hours on my own almost every day. The fruit of my labor paid off. In June of 1991, at age 14, I was to leave for Europe where I was selected to be on Teams USA in soccer to compete for one month against teams from around the world.

Everything was set for me to leave. I had been training for hours every day in preparation. Five days before I was to leave for my “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity with Teams USA, I was trying out in Erie, Pennsylvania, for the Keystone State Games that were to be held in August. In the process of scoring a goal, I collided with the goalie who kicked me in the ankle, flipping me over. The coach thought my ankle was only sprained and planned to put me back in the game, but I was unable to walk. After an hour-and-a-half drive back from Erie and X-rays in Hermitage, we discovered that not only was my ankle broken, but I would also need surgery. My dream appeared ruined and my heart was broken. As tears ran down my face, my dad promised me that if I trusted the Lord and honored Him, somehow the Lord would bring good out of this tragedy.

In the meantime, the coach, still unaware that I had broken my ankle, called to say I had made the Keystone League (Great Lakes Region) team.

At church the next Sunday morning, special prayer was offered to God on my behalf. My dad said he really sensed the Lord’s presence and felt a strong witness in his heart. He believed God healed my ankle, as did the pastor and everyone else. But X-rays on Monday proved otherwise. We had many more difficulties to go through, but we continued to trust the Lord.

After my surgery, my dad told me that the Lord wanted me to learn two main character traits through this — patience and kindness. It was amazing how the Lord worked in my life. Instead of this adversity driving me away from the Lord, it drew me closer.
Initially my parents were told that I would need three to six months for full recovery. As it turned out, I was able to have my splint removed three weeks after an excellent surgery by Dr. Bonier. I was able to resume normal soccer participation only two months following surgery. During the fall of 1991, I helped coach two younger YMCA soccer teams, played on my own team, and also refereed for two different soccer leagues.

Although the Lord was obviously still working in my young life, He used something of this magnitude to teach me to trust and honor Him — no matter what. The Lord greatly blessed me for staying faithful in the midst of trying times.

The following article, BJ Rudge: Striving For Excellence, written by Ashley Sharapan, was printed in May 1992 on the front page of The Hickory Leaf, the Hickory High School newspaper, and is a good summary of the events:

Although BJ Rudge was eligible for Teams USA, a very prestigious soccer team, in 1991 a soccer injury prevented him from traveling with the team. This July [1992] BJ will travel with the East-West Soccer Ambassadors for three weeks in Sweden and Denmark to play in the Gothia and Tivoli Cups.

Since he was six years old, BJ has played soccer. …He has been named the most valuable player at least three times and has won awards for the most goals scored, yet BJ still strives to achieve further goals.

At 14, BJ was honored by being chosen to represent the United States throughout Europe with the soccer team, Teams USA. However, his dreams were shattered five days before he was to depart for Europe. While trying out for the Keystone League soccer team, a state team, BJ was injured when the goalie kicked him in the ankle. BJ comments, “The hour-and-a-half trip home from Erie was extremely painful, but I hoped that my ankle was only sprained.” Just as BJ found out that he made the Keystone League team, he also found out that he couldn’t go to Europe because ankle surgery was necessary. “My dreams seemed ruined; my heart was broken, but I believed in the Lord and trusted all would work out.”

Initially it was thought that BJ had to be off his ankle for three to six months, but the splint was removed just three weeks after surgery. He began playing soccer regularly, coaching two YMCA younger teams, and refereeing for two different soccer leagues. BJ even coordinated his own team to play indoor winter soccer in Austintown. He is continuing rehabilitation to strengthen his ankle and practices and plays a hard game. Dedication, determination, and heart have paid off for BJ! Because of his and other students’ love for the game, having an official school team was presented to the school board. On April 27th [1992] it was approved at the school board meeting. BJ is thrilled to hear the news!

During the July 1992 European tour mentioned in the above quote, I was able to make significant contributions to the USA team. Not only was I appointed team captain by the coach during the whole tour of both Gothia (Sweden) and Tivoli (Denmark) cups, I scored the most goals for my team and was leading scorer in my age group for all East-West USA teams. I also scored the one and only point of the game against Norway to help the American team qualify for the Gothia cup playoffs. Time would soon prove, however, that the Lord was not yet done refining me through the fire. I had many more trials to face as the Lord continued shaping my young life, like a potter molding clay (Isaiah 64:8).

The Refiner’s Fire

I was only 16 and in a few weeks would begin my senior year of high school. Much of the summer was spent traveling in the eastern part of the U.S. during my soccer itinerary. I was on several different teams, as well as the Olympic Development Program. My parents felt it was a wise investment of their time and money since this was the year I needed exposure beyond our area to enable me to get a college scholarship for soccer. I had high expectations that my senior year would be my best year of high school. I would be playing soccer in the fall for my high school’s first year of varsity soccer. My soccer coach had hopes of being in the playoffs our first year with me on the team. I was instrumental in helping start soccer at my school, which then quickly spread to many other schools in the area.

Also in my senior year, I was going to kick for the high school football team –– something I had never done before. After seeing me kick, one of the football coaches began training me for the position. The soccer and football coaches were going to cooperate so I could participate in two varsity sports during the fall season. Then in the spring I anticipated another great season of running track. I was certain it was going to be a great senior year. Life, however, does not always turn out as expected. A few days before starting both soccer and football summer camps, the Slippery Rock University soccer coach saw me at a tournament at a university in northwest Pennsylvania and was impressed. Not only did he want me to go with him the following Saturday to play on his team in a tournament at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, but he also offered me a scholarship to play on his college team once I graduated from high school.

On Saturday, August 14, 1993, I played in this tournament. During one of the games, I jumped over the goalie on the way to score and heard a pop in my knee. I could barely walk. It was just two days before football and soccer summer camps were to begin.

The news couldn’t have been worse concerning my knee injury. When our family doctor drained my knee, instead of clear fluid there was blood. We then went to several knee specialists who informed us that not only was there cartilage damage, but I had also torn a ligament. The MRI results confirmed a near-complete tear of the anterior cruciate ligament. Reconstructive surgery was recommended. To make matters worse, I was covered by insurance on all the 30-plus soccer games I had played that summer for PA West, Keystone League, and Olympic Development Program, but not the tournament in which I was injured.

I had previously broken my collarbone and left ankle, and now I “blew out” my right knee. My dad reminded me how two years earlier when I had broken my ankle trying out for the state games and lost my trip to Europe, the Lord worked it all together for good. He assured me that God would do the same this time. With tears in my eyes I said, “I know God was faithful and that I was able to repeat Europe the following year, but I can never repeat my senior year in high school.”

Since it was my senior year, I opted to postpone surgery until after soccer season. I decided to do rehabilitation to strengthen my leg enough to be able to play with a brace. I did not want to let down my team, and I still had hopes of getting a scholarship for college. After five weeks of excruciating rehabilitation, I returned to play with my team.

A few days before my second game I received threats that if I played, opposing players would re-injure my knee. Word had gotten out that players on the other team were saying, “If BJ plays, we lose; if BJ doesn’t play, we win.” I asked my dad if he thought I should play or not. He said, “I’m not one to back down to threats, but it’s your choice.” After prayer, I decided to play. As soon as I dribbled the ball, I had three of the other team’s players all over me. I was able to weave through them the first time, but the second time I had the ball would be my last. Within a few minutes of playing in the game, I was slide-tackled from behind, which re-injured my right knee. I went down in excruciating pain and was carried out of the game.

Two days after re-injuring my knee we were able to see Dr. Fu, a knee specialist in Pittsburgh. We were informed that the anterior cruciate ligament was completely torn, and there was no alternative but to face extensive surgery. My dad told me on the way home from that appointment, during which we set the surgery date, that “Trials, obstacles, and difficulties put iron in our blood and make us strong as nails.”

After I arrived home from Pittsburgh, my dad returned my soccer uniform to my coach. That very day I also took down all my plaques, trophies, and jerseys from my bedroom wall. My parents thought I had thrown them all away, but later found them in a bottom dresser drawer.

Tacked on the wall where the plaques had been, I placed two pieces of paper with hand-printed words. The first stated: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” The second one stated: “The end result is always victory.” I recorded the following in my journal:

I always wondered why people had to go through hard times. Also, why the Lord doesn’t always intervene when you want Him to. But since I injured my knee, I learned a lot of things. First, I learned that I had the best family who loves me and really cares about me. Second, I learned a lot of character, and my relationship with the Lord grew stronger. Maybe things didn’t work the way I wanted them to. I didn’t get to play soccer and football my senior year. I didn’t even get the healing I wanted from the Lord. What I did get is more important than playing soccer and being the big star. I found the true meaning of what it is to love the Lord. Lord, I thank You for Your faithfulness and Your love. Help me continue to grow stronger in You.

On October 8, 1993, I had the reconstructive surgery and a ligament transplant in my knee. As the Lord continued to stretch our faith, He assured us that this too would work out for good, and the end result would be ultimate victory.

When I initially injured my right knee on August 14, 1993, my dad fasted. My mom and I also fasted as together we sought the Lord with all our hearts. My dad said, “In all my walk with Him, I had never sought Him so earnestly or felt so close to Him. I knew of no other way to seek Him anymore but to seek Him with all my heart.” The promise the Lord gave us from the day I first injured my knee was to trust Him, and everything would work out for ultimate victory and blessing. One such blessing came later when we discovered that since I was injured during a school game, the school insurance would cover the surgery and hospital expenses. My parents would personally only have to pay a few thousand dollars for the previous rehabilitation and brace, and could make interest-free payments for that. I told my dad one day before surgery that I had more fulfillment from and desire to play soccer than anything else. But I also said, “I desire the Lord even more.” My dad said, “The Lord wants you to have a desire for Him which is greater than your desire for soccer. The Lord will eventually give you greater fulfillment than soccer ever could. And the Lord wants to take the skill you have in soccer, and give you even greater skill in serving Him!”

What I temporarily lost physically, I gained spiritually. Not only did the Lord use these circumstances to greatly mold my character, but I also ended up at a Christian college instead of going to a secular university as originally intended, where I would have played for what appeared to be a more prestigious opportunity. In March of 1994, during my senior year in high school, I decided to attend Geneva College from which I had received a soccer scholarship. In April of 1994, while I was on a senior class trip to New York, my parents put all my plaques and trophies back up on my wall. I was pleasantly surprised when I returned home. My parents told me that it took a long time to put them back up so, if I got injured again, to please not take them down. At the bottom of my sign stating, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” my dad added the words, “And the Lord giveth back!” Gradually, the Lord instilled in me a desire for ministry, to pursue my doctorate in theology, and to one day teach at the university level.

All Things Work Together for Good

Although only a freshman, I was on the varsity team at Geneva College. On November 4, 1994, just two weeks after knee specialist Dr. Fu told me that my right knee was fully recovered, I injured my left knee during soccer practice. I had spent one year rehabilitating my right knee and had been playing with a brace while at Geneva. A few days before my injury, the team ran nine miles on cement. My dad was concerned because my right knee was sore from it and I didn’t want to complain or make excuses. During a practice session at the college, another player pushed me just as I kicked the soccer ball. I heard a similar pop in my left knee exactly like the one that occurred in my right knee a year earlier. I knew I had torn another ligament. Sure enough, on November 7, 1994, Dr. Fu drained blood from my left knee and said I needed the same surgery as I had on my right knee. The MRI showed a complete tear of the anterior cruciate ligament and other damages. From November 7-30, my parents fasted from all television and, occasionally during that time, they fasted on just liquids and fruits and vegetables for one to three days at a time. They fasted for the “Lord to be glorified through BJ’s left knee.”

My injury occurred two weeks before we were to leave for a ministry trip to Haiti. Although Dr. Fu told me upon examination on November 7 that I needed surgery, the plans were finalized the next day to go to Haiti on November 23. So in spite of torn feelings and pressure to stay home, we planned to move ahead on the trip and trust God to work things out. On November 14, the MRI report confirmed the doctor’s prognosis — a complete tear of the anterior cruciate ligament plus other damage. I was scheduled for reconstructive surgery on December 13, 1994, and would then have many months of intensive rehabilitation. In spite of this report, we continued our plans to go to Haiti.

Just days before our trip to Haiti, I called my parents from Geneva College to tell them the exciting news that Geneva won the national championship in soccer — a first for the college. Since I had played for the varsity team at Geneva, the coach made sure I got a national championship plaque even though I was unable to be at the game. The Haiti mission trip was quite a challenge for me, but I made it. I walked many miles in hot weather over rough terrain wearing a leg brace. One slip could have been a real tragedy, but everything went well. My knee injury and brace gave even more impact to the message I shared in the school assemblies in Haiti — the students knew I identified with their even greater suffering.

On December 13, 1994, I had surgery on my left knee. Although the MRI showed other damage than the ACL, Dr. Fu said he only had to repair the ACL and everything else was fine. My dad told me after my surgery, “We sought the Lord for six weeks and you had to have surgery. Let’s show the Lord we were not trying to manipulate Him to give us what we want. Let’s continue to seek Him now with all our hearts to find out what He desires us to do. We have a chance to walk by faith like Abraham, not knowing where we are going.” I took a year off from playing soccer, not knowing if I would ever play again. I earnestly sought the Lord’s direction for my life. I filled much of that time with coaching and refereeing, as well as studying Scripture.

Later that spring, some of the guys from the team that injured my right knee in high school asked if I would coach their indoor team. I graciously accepted. Then in the summer, the head coach of the high school team that had injured my right knee asked me to be his assistant soccer coach in the fall, since I would not be playing for Geneva College. He told me that my virtues would be a great asset to his team. Once again, I graciously accepted. Although I was only 18 and a sophomore in college, I became assistant soccer coach for an area high school.

In February of 1996, I was hired to be head coach at Hickory High School for the fall 1996 season. At the age of 19, I was quite possibly one of the youngest head coaches in the country.

The Lord gradually changed my focus from being a soccer star to being more totally committed to ministry and helping others. I ran soccer clinics and summer recreation for Hickory High School and helped at the YMCA camp.

I fully recovered from knee surgery. After a year off, I played for two college teams and a highly competitive men’s regional team. I also coached soccer, and spoke at various churches and schools.

“Soccer Was My God and It Destroyed Me”

I was now 20 and actively involved in coaching soccer, running clinics for area youth, training individuals, coordinating indoor soccer tournaments at the ministry, and also playing in a men’s league consisting of some of the best players from throughout the region. I was playing well. Even though I had a ligament transplant in each knee, my knees seemed to be fine. We were thankful to the Lord for providing such an excellent surgeon and physical therapists.

It was Saturday, June 7, 1997, that I played in a highly competitive game on the same field where my knee was re-injured during a high school game. As I shot on goal a defender ran into my extended leg. I heard the familiar pop in my left knee as I was spun around from the impact and knocked to the ground. Two of my teammates helped me limp off the field. I was certain it was the same injury as before. My team ended up winning the game, but it cost me another knee injury. I was on the verge of losing everything again: playing on this team; running summer recreation which would start in a week; leaving on an outreach trip with my family to Nevada and California in three weeks; coaching in the fall for my second year as head coach; and taking my team to an amusement park (four days after the injury).

My dad had that same gut-wrenching feeling again as he examined my knee on the sidelines. This was the calmest I had ever been after such a traumatic injury. I guess I knew in my heart that my days of playing competitive soccer were finally over, and I resigned myself to the inevitable.

Late that Sunday afternoon I went to the emergency room. After examination and X-rays, the doctor at the hospital thought I might not have completely torn my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). An area knee specialist saw me the next day and also felt after examination that the ACL was not completely torn. He requested an MRI the following day and said he would call us in the evening to give us an overview. 

The stress and emotions from the ordeals of my previous injuries returned as we went from doctor to doctor and experienced the same roller-coaster emotions from elation to despair. We were hopeful the MRI would show minimal damage requiring only rehabilitation or simple surgery to correct the problem. The local knee specialist called to inform us that the MRI report revealed ACL damage — a rupture or complete tear. With disappointment in his voice, he said he would look over the MRI himself and call us back later that evening. Upon further evaluation of the MRI, he felt we should go back to Dr. Fu in Pittsburgh who had done the previous surgery, because the screw from that surgery on my left knee obscured the view of the ACL. Believing I would definitely need more surgery, the local knee specialist said that although he could do it well, Dr. Fu had done so many that he could do it with his eyes closed.

Hoping and praying for a diagnosis of no surgery, we went to Pittsburgh on June 12. I had already determined in my heart to give up competitive soccer, so we were hoping no surgery would be needed in order to seal that decision. My parents added my situation to their growing fasting list. My dad earnestly prayed and cried out to the Lord for His assistance. If immediate surgery was required, the upcoming ministry trip to Nevada and California would have to be canceled. I would not be able to run summer recreation for Hermitage, which started in a week, and I would have to resign as head coach for Hickory High School — even though I had just signed their contract for my second year. I had just finished three weeks of commuting to Geneva College, so I would have enough credits to graduate the following year, and still be able to coach in the fall.

When Dr. Fu’s associate saw the MRI, he immediately said, “There is no ACL.” He said it was completely gone. Once again we were facing the worst possible scenario. We had prayed that the Lord would put into Dr. Fu’s mouth the words of what we should do. When Dr. Fu came in and looked at the MRI, he said, “Let’s wait and rehabilitate it for a while.” For the previous knee injuries, he had immediately recommended surgery as the only alternative, but not this time. We’re not sure whether it was because the MRI did not conclusively show the ACL being completely torn or because second surgeries on the ACL do not have the same success rate. Nevertheless, we felt the Lord honored our prayer, and for the time being, no surgery was scheduled. I continued my regular knee conditioning as well as more extensive therapy for the new injury.

At least with the previous injuries I knew that even though I had to face surgery, I could at least probably play soccer again after doing rehabilitation. Now I knew I may still have to face surgery eventually, but would probably never play again competitively.

On July 17, we had a follow-up appointment to determine if I needed surgery. I had been doing physical therapy since the injury, and the physical therapist felt my knee was too tight to have a complete ACL tear.

My dad told me on the way to Pittsburgh that it would be great if Dr. Fu said it was only partially torn. Then I would be motivated to not return to competitive soccer, but could still coach and demonstrate moves for my players, and live a relatively normal life.

An associate of Dr. Fu’s came in and checked my knee. He was amazed it was not looser with a torn ACL. He indicated that maybe it was only partially torn as he reevaluated the MRI. Then Dr. Fu came in and seemed bewildered as he examined my knee. He, too, was amazed how tight it was, and also examined the MRI. He said to his associate, “These people are very religious people,” as if to explain the amazing improvement of the knee. He told me to resume normal activity, but to wear a brace for the next two months. He wanted to examine me again in six weeks.

In the Midst of the Fire, 
God Was Faithful

My broken collarbone, broken ankle, and four knee injuries each seemed hopeless at the time. But the Lord kept encouraging us to stand strong in faith and reassured us that everything would work out for good. The end result would be ultimate victory.

Seeing no way for this to happen, but trusting the Lord, we sought Him with all our hearts. By God’s grace and empowerment, our faith endured the fire. In the midst of the fiery furnace,God was faithfully accomplishing His purpose.

With each injury God would refine and mold my personality. Each time I was injured my dad saw a little bit more of the world being stripped away from my life — a little bit more pride — and instilled with a little bit more humility — a little bit more trust and faith — a little bit more courage from the Lord — a little bit more indifference to be lured away by all the cares of this world. So I say, “Thank God for His faithfulness.” Not, “Thank God for the tragedies,” but “Thank God for His faithfulness in the midst of the tragedies.”
I kept personal records listing spiritual goals while experiencing pain, setbacks, and disappointments. Three quotes in review are:

"Let my heart pursue Your will, the way it does to score a goal."

"The greatest thing I learned from this was something that has completely changed me. I now know it is time to start focusing on the Lord’s calling for my life."

"Build within me a desire to serve You; stronger than my desire to play soccer."

Our family has been greatly blessed of the Lord and my sister and I have excelled at almost everything we have attempted. Both of us have received many honors throughout our school and college years. My dad always reminded us that I Samuel 2:30 says, “Those who honor Me, I will honor.”

We have attempted to honor the Lord and put Him first, and He has honored and blessed us in so many ways. We have faced obstacles and difficulties repeatedly which have kept us humble and built our faith. Trials have made us even stronger in Him, and taught us perseverance. The Lord has taught us the importance of staying faithful to Him — even when we may feel He has forsaken us. As time always proved, He was not unfaithful, but faithfully working all things together for good. He has greatly blessed us for staying faithful to Him throughout trying times.

I graduated from Geneva College in May of 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in Biblical studies. At the graduation one of my professors said to my dad, “What a change the Lord has done in BJ’s life. When he first came here all he wanted to do was play soccer, and now all he cares about is ministry.” This statement is indicative of the transformation that has occurred in my life over the years of fiery trials.

By taking six more credits in the fall of 1998, I also received a double major in philosophy. Commuting one more semester to receive this double major from Geneva College enabled me to coach my third year at Hickory High School. Although they did not make the playoffs as I hoped, the impact I had on the players through the many adversities I faced was realized months later from comments and letters I received.

In January of 1999, I entered Talbot School of Theology in California. Following a rigorous and disciplined schedule, I was able to graduate only a year and a half later with a master’s degree in theology. I married Tara Rowe, my high school sweetheart, on June 17, 2000. That fall I began pursuing a doctorate degree in philosophy and apologetics from Trinity Theological Seminary which I finished in December of 2005.

I also went on to get my national coaching license. As long as I am able, I am sure I will continue to train individuals, coach teams, referee, write books, and speak at churches, schools, and various other groups. In addition to coaching and serving full time in ministry, I am an adjunct professor for a couple of universities. In a paper I wrote at Talbot while working on my master’s degree, I stated:

I look back now and I am thankful that God did not heal my knee. I had placed soccer before God and it became my identity. However, these surgeries helped me to straighten out my priorities in life. It took me a while to realize this, but as I look back on it now I realize that I gained more from my surgeries than I had lost. The Lord gave me more than I could have imagined. I would never be the person that I am today if I had not gone through those surgeries.

People ask me all the time if I had the option, would I go back and change the past. I tell them there is no way that I would. Sometimes I do wonder what I would be like if I had played my senior year and had been able to play all four years in college. Every time I do, I remember where I was then, and how I could only have gotten to where I am now through the reality of losing something so important to me. Soccer is still a part of my life, but now I keep it in perspective of what is most important - my relationship with God.

Only the Lord knows what is ahead. But when He takes us through the fire, we know that somehow He will use it to build our faith and mold us for His purpose and glory. He is the potter and we are the clay. Therefore, we submit to Him and His dealings in our lives knowing that He loves us, is in control of all that we face, and that ultimate victory will come. I have learned that the road that leads to the fulfillment of God’s purpose requires faith and perseverance because it goes through barren deserts, treacherous wildernesses, and lonely valleys before ultimate victory is achieved.

In closing, keep in mind what my dad told me during a difficult time in my life:

Out of the ashes of our dreams, God performs His will.

Excerpts from “Faith Through The Fire” book.