Jake Rufe said he could have never imagined that he’d be playing for Birmingham’s professional soccer team, but he knows that God’s plans are always bigger and better than anything he could have foreseen.
Rufe, a Huntsville native who played club soccer in high school in the Birmingham area, joined Birmingham Legion FC as a defender for the 2020 season and has already found playing time on the pitch. “Not long ago I was in Charlotte playing in soccer’s third division. The club was struggling, and I didn’t even know if the season was going to happen,” Rufe said. “I ended up leaving and taking the chance on my next step. God went before me and knew what I needed. I can see God’s hand in all the little things that have happened during my soccer career.”
Birmingham Legion FC. The Birmingham Legion FC is a professional soccer team that’s part of the United Soccer League (USL), which is just one division below Major League Soccer (MLS). Players on USL teams often have had MLS experience, or share time during the season with an MLS team, making the quality of play stellar. This is just the second season in Legion FC’s existence and follows up on an inaugural season that saw the team make it to the USL playoff quarterfinals, a feat unmatched by any other new league member. The team this year has started off strong in a coronavirus-delayed season that will go through Oct. 3 and any ensuing playoff games. As of August 28, Legion FC’s record was 5-1-3 and the team sat in first place in the USL’s Group G division. Legion FC, which plays at BBVA Field on the UAB campus in downtown Birmingham, is a favorite family destination and offers special kid-friendly pregame and other activities. Limited capacity and other changes have been made to keep the environment safe amid the Covid-19 pandemic. You can learn about Legion FC’s schedule, activities, and more at www.bhmlegion.com.
Journey to Birmingham. Rufe, 24, played soccer at Grissom High School in Huntsville and was named the Gatorade Alabama Boys State Player of the Year in 2014; he then played collegiately at Indiana University for two years before transferring to and playing three years at Western Michigan University. Before coming to Birmingham, he played professionally with AFC Ann Arbor in the USL’s League Two and for Charlotte in the third division. “I started playing when I was four or five at the park like a lot of kids do,” Rufe said. “I started playing club soccer in fourth or fifth grade, and then in middle school stopped playing other sports to focus on soccer.”
At the beginning of this season, Rufe got in touch with a former club coach in Birmingham who was able to get him a tryout with the Legion team. He arrived on the first day of preseason practice and waited to hear whether he’d made the team. “Each day I was on trial and tension was high, but right before the quarantine I signed here with Birmingham,” he said. “It really felt like home.” According to Rufe, the journey to Birmingham reinforced to him that God was at active work in his life. The decision to play for the club soccer coach was something that happened “at the last minute” when he was a teenager, and yet that connection is what brought him to play professionally with Legion FC. “Things happened that I never could have expected,” he said.
Rufe said that he’s felt right at home since arriving in Birmingham. He’s established relationships with other players and he unexpectedly was able to earn immediate playing time. “Circumstantially, I’ve been lucky enough to start some games and get a lot of minutes,” he said. “A lot of players aren’t coming to the league and getting time. I’ve talked about what a great opportunity this is. I have to seize the opportunity and realize this is what I’ve been training for.” When Rufe signed with Birmingham, president and general manager Jay Heaps noted Rufe’s “versatility and depth” as key reasons for his addition to the squad.
Faith Journey. Rufe grew up in Huntsville’s Whitesburg Baptist Church with strong Christian parents who instilled in him strong values and lessons of faith. His father, Jerry, not only was a former soccer goalie but also a Sunday School teacher at their church while mother Valerie often held Bible studies in their home. Looking back on the way he was raised and on the model his parents set, Rufe said that he now sees how blessed he was. “It’s something I think about more and more as I get older,” he said. “I can see blessings in their lives because of how they’ve lived. Now that I have a bigger picture view, their examples definitely inspire me.” The challenge now, according to Rufe, is to continue that same sort of faith as he becomes a role model to children and other fans, and as he builds relationships with teammates. He said he’s always looked up to professionals who were believers, noting how they’ve lived their lives in the spotlight. “You can be on the biggest stage and you don’t have to change what you believe,” he said. “While I’m not well known per se, I definitely see how important that is.”
Rufe has always taken advantage of opportunities when they’ve arisen to share his faith with others. He’s recently been able to talk at his high school and church, and he knows that it’s a big responsibility to represent Christ. He said that the most exciting recent opportunity has been getting to know his new team. Training has always been one of his favorite parts of being on a team and he said that it’s particularly conducive to building relationships. “During the week when we’re not playing, we get to know each other really well. I’ve had a lot of great conversations with people, and I’ve been excited to realize that I have fellow believers on the team,” said Rufe, adding, “It is so encouraging to share struggles and victories with my teammates. I know they face similar temptations and feel pride rise up and it’s good that we identify it for what it is and encourage each other to not let that control our reactions,” Rufe said. “We have spoken on many occasions on how what you dwell on and feed your thoughts is what will drive your desires.”
The Hopes of the Season. Rufe said that the 2020 season has been unique for many reasons, the most obvious of which has been the havoc caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The time has given him, however, a unique opportunity to grow in his faith while also growing in his ability as a soccer player. He’s spent more time in spiritual growth through Bible study (he’s currently studying Judges, which Rufe said teaches about the cycle of “brokenness, rescue, and deliverance”) and has also improved his performance on and off the field through workouts and playing time. “It was a little tough when we went a couple of months without knowing if we would have a season or not, but then our spirits really changed,” he said. “We realized it was a real privilege to be playing again and to have that opportunity.” Players had individual workouts, then about a month before the season started, they were able to work in small groups. Now, back on the pitch together, the team is trying to replicate what it did last season. “It’s really been a good start, and we’ve already won a lot of games,” he said. “We have to focus on one game at a time and try to pick up where the team left off last time. I’m just happy to be able to contribute how I can.”
Wray writes about sports for the Alabama Media Group, and is the coordinator of the Southern Christian Writers Conference. She lives in Hueytown, Ala. and is married with three daughters and six grandchildren.
Get more Good News! Read the entire September 2020 issue of Birmingham Christian Family!