Jake Rufe is a defender on the soccer field. Off the field, he’s a defender of another kind, encouraging other team members to keep their faith strong.
Rufe plays for the Birmingham Legion Football Club, part of the United Soccer League. The team doesn’t have a chaplain, but Rufe sometimes plays a similar role, meeting as often as possible with other Christian team members during the season.
“There’s a group on our team, and I know other guys who have faith as well,” said Rufe, who calls Whitesburg Baptist Church in Huntsville home. “We try to meet on a weekly basis. We get in the Word and talk about how we can encourage each other and any struggles. We pray together.
“It’s been really cool to see guys from all different walks of life and all different countries coming together like that.”
Meaning in meeting together
Phanuel Kavita, a fellow defender and Birmingham Legion’s team captain, is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and came to the U.S. in 2000. As a child he played soccer with his siblings to “decompress and not worry about life situations,” he said.
He made the decision to play professional soccer when he was a teenager and agreed with Rufe about the value of the Bible study group.
“[It] means a lot to me because it’s a group of young men trying to strengthen their faith and walk in their faith with fellow followers of Jesus who want to do the same,” Kavita explained. “We get together and start off with highs and lows of the week. Then we discuss and dive into a Scripture that we’ve set out to read that week and talk about it and get each other’s perspective on it.”
Rufe and Kavita are two of the five who make it a point to meet together to fellowship and encourage each other in their faith. The others are Jeff Johnson, Matthew Corcoran and Jonathan “Johnny” Dean.
A testimony across time
Like Kavita, Rufe decided soccer was the sport for him when he was a teenager, having been influenced by his father. The sport, called football in other countries, is popular worldwide and is gaining in popularity in the U.S.
“I have been playing soccer since I was [4 years old] at the park in the rec leagues,” Rufe said. “I grew up playing every year. I would play baseball as well. My dad played soccer back in his playing career in his younger days so I was always partial to soccer.”
Rufe played in high school and, while in college, faced a choice: complete his studies in exercise science or to try to turn professional. He decided to finish his degree, and the summer after he graduated, he signed his first professional contract.
“You could definitely see the Lord’s hand and how it worked, especially for me coming to Birmingham,” Rufe said.
After about six months things weren’t going well with his team, and he talked to an old high school coach in Birmingham who knew the president of Birmingham Legion.
“So that’s how I got my foot in the door,” Rufe said. “Because of one decision in high school to put my best foot forward and play the best I could and keep striving, an opportunity came five years later to put me where I am now.”
The value of prayer and community
He added that prayer helped him fulfill this dream, but it wasn’t always a smooth journey. When he doubted he was good enough to play at the next level, his parents, coaches and friends encouraged him to work hard and see what happened.
In 2021 Rufe’s hard work and drive to succeed paid off. He scored his first professional goal from more than 55 yards, and it was named the 2021 Legion FC Goal of the Year.
“That was a really special moment,” Rufe remembered. “That season had been very hard for me — that season in life, I mean. My father passed away in March 2021 very suddenly. It was right before the season started. It was tough.”
Rufe has learned a lot about his faith while preparing for and playing soccer.
“It has taught me just to appreciate my teammates and love my teammates no matter what,” he said. “You know, I just feel like it’s a blessing to be surrounded by good guys. We get to do what we love as a job. I try to show that love we feel from the Lord, and that we’re called to love others. I think that’s something that is special and that I want to do better and better.”
For more information about the Birmingham Legion Football Club, click here.