Catholic College Basketball Player Pivots to FOCUS Missionary
Keegan Ruddy makes his biggest rebound choosing to serve with Fellowship of Catholic University Students/Varsity Catholic.
When Keegan Ruddy went away in the fall of 2013 to Christopher Newport University in Virginia, he had high hopes for both academics and athletics. While his classes went well, the 6-3 guard/forward experienced great challenges on the court. Even though the team was successful, Ruddy felt so much pressure to perform that, in his mind, nothing he did was ever good enough.
Although Ruddy was a practicing Catholic, he had placed basketball over faith. His inversion of priorities brought anxiety and depression, which eventually led him to a life-changing pivot late in his freshman season. He left the basketball team and became a more complete Catholic.
In the summer of 2016 Ruddy met a Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionary on a pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Poland. The missionary was part of the athletic division of FOCUS, called Varsity Catholic. His familiarity with what athletes experience and his willingness to actively teach a deeper Christian way of life drew Ruddy into FOCUS himself.
Ruddy just finished his second year with FOCUS/Varsity Catholic at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, and is headed to the FOCUS support center in Colorado for the 2019-20 school year. He spoke in this interview about his transformation through the sacraments, prayer and good works as the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors take place.
Apparently the TV ratings are way down from last year, but have you been watching the NBA Playoffs?
I am a sports junkie, so even when I don’t watch games on TV, I do follow the standings and playoff results. With the NBA specifically, I am impressed by how the final two teams — the Warriors and Raptors — are led by players who are humble, team-minded men rather than trash-talkers or show-boaters. It’s reassuring and inspiring to know that you can be successful personally and team-wise without being selfish.
Like 10-time NCAA champion coach John Wooden said, the main ingredient to stardom is the rest of the team.
That’s one of the things I like most about basketball — the built-in camaraderie experienced when playing on a team with other guys. In my high school and college days, we were teammates, study partners and brothers for a whole season, which raises ordinary fellowship to a new level.
I’ve found that even when it’s a pickup game, there’s an instant connection when you’re on a team with other guys. The individual suddenly become part of a shared mission and there’s a purpose-filled strength that pervades.
Conversely, the thing I like least about basketball is when there’s a player who is only in it for himself. He might want to impress someone in the crowd, run up his stats or whatever, and that brings morale down. A team sport like basketball should involve all five players for a common goal.
What was your college basketball experience like?
Well, I had been playing basketball with my dad and three older brothers for years, and starting in the seventh grade I even had a personal trainer in addition to all the practices and games.
After great junior and senior seasons in high school, I was intensely looking forward to playing in college. I had invested so much into the sport and desperately wanted to do well for myself, my family, teammates, coaches and school. I cared so much about things I couldn’t control, which is a recipe for disaster, manifested specifically in anxiety and depression.
There can be a sharp contrast between what people think of athletes’ lives being like and what they really are like.
Sports are supposed to be fun, but because of hyper-competitiveness and other factors, they can be made into nightmare situations. Within athletic departments there can be constant judgment and outward standards that have to be met. There’s a lot of pressure to produce, to the point that an athlete sees his value only through the lens of sports without reference to anything else.
So you didn’t enjoy playing in college?
During my freshman season we had good results, but I was experiencing a lot of anxiety and depression. As a perfectionist seeking glory where it was not to be found, I wanted to be more valuable to the team. Yet all I saw was the negatives: I could be doing this better, that better, etc. The joy I had once felt while playing turned into fear, frustration, guilt and near-despair.
It got to the point that I left the team and school for a few weeks, went to counseling, looked more deeply into Catholicism, and then decided not to play basketball competitively in order to reduce stress.
Since I left the team, they made it to the NCAA Division III Final Four twice. That was tough at times to see, because it would have been nice to be a part of. Yet I knew it would have been extremely taxing to have put in the work necessary and I was happy for them that they could achieve such great things on court.
Do you think that anxiety and depression for athletes can come from putting so much into the sport and then not getting back expected results?
There can be a contrast between what was expected and what occurs as far as results, so that the loser of a game does not feel good. However, they’re even winners who get what they want as far as outward results, but don’t get what they want as far as peace of mind.
Tom Brady said after winning his fifth Super Bowl that there had to be more to life. Even when you’re on top of the world athletically, you can be less-than-fulfilled on a deeper level. That’s where the right philosophy of life and the right religious outlook come into play.
After leaving the basketball team, you majored in philosophy and comparative religions.
I wanted to cut through the worldly fog and get to the most important questions of life. That meant studying philosophy and religion. CNU is a public school, though, so I had to sift through what I was being taught in order to challenge the false, adjust the incomplete and praise the true.
Most of my professors and classmates were Protestant, so I became known as the resident Catholic. That dynamic provided a healthy tension, since I had to learn the specifics of what the Church teaches in order to explain them to everyone else. It was like building muscles through weightlifting. There was pressure I responded to and then became stronger because of it.
Was the difference between your response to athletic pressure and classroom pressure due to the resources you were using — with athletics, yourself and with academics, God?
That’s it in a nutshell. When we rely on our own abilities, they can only take us so far. When we rely on God, we have boundless possibilities. The more we pray, receive the sacraments and do good work (which are various ways of sharing the faith), the more we leave our limited selves behind and are transformed into souls that resemble God Himself.
I started prayerfully reading the New Catholic Answer Bible every day and was taken in by God’s love and concern for me and all of humanity. There is something very powerful in lectio divina — the thoughtful, prayerful meditation on Scripture —that transcends quickly reading the Bible like a newspaper. When we know that the Bible comes from God our loving Father through the Church his Son established, then we can’t help but want to spend valuable time with it every day.
Empowered by Scripture, I went to confession, experienced Sunday Mass differently, started going to weekday Masses, and prayed the Rosary more often. A friend of mine told me about St. Dymphna, a patron of those with mental health disorders, and I read a book called I Believe in Love: A Personal Retreat Based on the Teaching of St. Therese of Lisieux. Through all these means and more, my anxiety and depression were transformed into purpose-filled contentment.
How did you become acquainted with FOCUS and Varsity Catholic?
I started becoming involved with the Catholic Campus Ministry at CNU, which I found to be very comforting. It was a haven amid all the pressure and judgment of campus life.
Then in 2016 I went on pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Poland and met Mike Repovz, a Varsity Catholic missionary. I desired to join FOCUS because of how he walked with me through that pilgrimage and taught me what it meant to live for Christ.
Since then, I have met or learned about many other athletes who are dedicated to helping others becoming better Christians. Patrick Towles is one of the examples of athletes who, after their collegiate careers, became Varsity Catholic missionaries.
Have you found young athletes to be connected to Catholic media of all types or just new media?
I’ve found that young Catholic athletes might be aware of groups like Dynamic Catholic or Lighthouse Catholic Media, but they haven’t read Fit for Heaven or heard Mike Sweeney’s CD talk. I only recently learned about Catholic Athletes for Christ, even though they’re based in Virginia, where I graduated from college a couple years ago. There are even Catholic individuals and groups — like Philip Rivers or EWTN — that might only be known for a sport or aren’t known at all, among young Catholic athletes.
In the past year-and-a-half we’ve had Mike Sweeney and Matt Birk speak at FOCUS events and athletes would tell me that they didn’t realize Mike and Matt were Catholic. Even guys whose favorite team was the Ravens didn’t know Matt was Catholic. Obviously they can learn Catholic teachings from non-athletes, but to have someone who has won a Super Bowl tell them is even better.
I was a big fan of Ron Baker’s when he was at Wichita State. That was long before I knew he was Catholic, so that’s just another example of how we need to connect the dots better as a Catholic community. That’s what FOCUS and Varsity Catholic are all about — showing young people that Jesus is not a hindrance to happiness, but the very road to happiness.
What are your plans with FOCUS now?
I just finished my second year as a FOCUS/Varsity Catholic missionary at Mount St. Mary’s and next year I’ll be in Colorado at the FOCUS support center to become a Varsity Catholic manager, assisting new missionaries and working with the Varsity Catholic national team to grow their mission. FOCUS is currently on 153 campuses and Varsity Catholic is on 99 if you include the FOCUS missionaries who do part-time athlete outreach through Varsity Catholic.
For now, I’m not thinking much beyond that, although I do see myself coaching basketball. That may just mean coaching my own future kids, but it could also mean coaching as a career.
I’ve always had an interest in coaching, so I’ve studied and thought a lot about how to effectively communicate the game to players. The best coaches are the ones who have authority but also identify with their players. They lead the team and make decisions, but with a genuine concern for their players’ well-being. John Wooden might be the best-known example of this type of coaching.
Maybe the most important things you will take into coaching have been learned by going through tribulations.
I find it particularly rewarding when I can use my personal journey to help someone else on the same journey. Athletes have a lot of pressure on them, which can result in lots of negative mental patterns. Men in general are not allowed to be imperfect in our judgmental culture, but when they’re athletes, the standard is taken to a new level. It’s seen as a moral failing to be anything but totally independent and strong all the time.
The Christian sees things differently. St. Paul wrote of rejoicing in his weakness in 2 Corinthians 12, because he knew that through it and other tribulations, he would become strong with the power of God.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book, Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015), contains numerous Catholic sports interviews,
most of which have appeared in the Register.