Regent Alumnus Aaron Runzo Combines Wrestling & Ministry
Wrestler; Virginia Beach Area Rep for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA)
Regent alumnus Aaron Runzo broke his neck—twice—before giving up wrestling. The son of a wrestling coach, he had dreamt of winning the Olympics since the fourth grade. He recalls how the living room of his home would be transformed into a wrestling arena after supper every night, where he, his father and brother would tussle each other. Runzo won state championships in high school and went on to win a national championship. It was then that his childhood dream of winning an Olympic medal for wrestling became a goal. What he didn’t realize was that wrestling had also become his idol. His identity had become intertwined with it.
Runzo began attending college at Northern Michigan University, which would train wrestlers for the Olympic Games. It was during this period that he broke his neck, continued wrestling after recovery, and then broke his neck again. His dream shattered, Runzo wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do next. But God had a plan. Today, the alumnus of Regent University’s School of Divinity, is combining his ministry training with wrestling as he coaches school students through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). The way in these two areas of were combined is a testament to God using us in ways we could never have imagined.
Let’s Start at the Very Beginning
Runzo and his brother were coached by their father, and even brought their favorite sport to their living room. “Every night, after dinner, our living room would turn into a wrestling room. We’d move the coffee table out of the way and just wrestle each other. It was the best childhood ever,” he says. “The passion, the love and the community with it just drove me to want to pursue higher goals,” he adds.
By the time Runzo was in the fourth grade, the goal of wrestling in and winning the Olympics was “set in (his) mind.” In fact, he confesses that this was the only thing he cared about for most of his childhood. In high school, he won a couple of state championships and then the nationals. He remembers freezing after his national win as the realization struck him that the Olympics could become a reality. From that moment on, competing at and winning the Olympics as a wrestler wasn’t just a dream—it was a goal.
Runzo initially attended Northern Michigan University, which has a team that specifically trains for the Olympics. However, two neck injuries cut short his Olympic goal. The ace wrestler remembers how painful the years thereafter were. “Those were probably the hardest few years of my life, because this one thing that I’d been passionate about—but truly, it was an idol—the stripping of that was tough. I felt as though I was getting stripped of my identity. And then, thankfully Christ filled me and He is my identity,” says Runzo.
Runzo remembers the exact moment that he was called to ministry. He and his wife Nikki were volunteering at a youth worship night. Runzo was in a season of his life where the path forward was not clear. He knew he wanted to “do something with ministry” but had no idea about the details. But it was during worship that night that he received clear direction—He was called to be a pastor. “I can still hear and feel and sense that moment when the Lord is speaking to me. I repeat that to myself daily, I bring myself back to that moment daily and remind myself that if the Lord has called me then He will provide.” And the Lord kept opening doors.
“There was never a question of where I was going to go (to seminary). It was just always going to be Regent,” says Runzo, who pursued a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree. “The transformation that I experienced during the time at the program, the wealth of knowledge that I was able to glean off the professors, and just the community—everything about it is so centered around the Gospel, the church and what we are meant to do to bring that message to the world,” he adds.
Runzo started working full time at the Christian Broadcasting Network’s prayer center while pursuing also pursuing his degree full time. He remembers the feeling of inadequacy on the first day of work and school. It was not a load he could carry himself, so he leaned on God. “My constant prayer was ‘Lord, I cannot do this myself. I need You.’” He prayed constantly provision and guidance. The Lord provided both, even as Runzo and his wife navigated full-time work, his full-time school, buying a house, and growing their family.
“I don’t know how we did any one of these things—(Lord) You allowed us to do all,” says Runzo. “This whole span of time has been a huge testament in our lives—our family and my wife and my lives—to how the Lord provides and guides us,” he adds.
Wrestling as a Platform for Ministry
Though Runzo was now content with giving up wrestling and dedicating his life to ministry, he felt the Lord speaking to him. “He kept telling me that something that I once loved from my past, He was going to bring back and use for ministry,” he says. However, Runzo wanted to be absolutely sure that this was the Lord guiding and not a latent wish surfacing. “If the Lord doesn’t want me to go that route, I’m not going to go near it because I let it (wrestling) control my life,” he says. So, he didn’t act for two to three years on what he had heard.
It was during a time of prayer that Runzo gained the confirmation he needed. “I knew a hundred percent that the Lord did want to use wrestling and sports as a platform for ministry…I felt so at peace.” What he didn’t know was how to act on it. And the Lord made the path straight.
That very day, Runzo’s brother (who did not know about his dilemma) said he felt the Lord wanted them to use wrestling as a platform for ministry. So, Runzo received a confirmation about “what” he needed to do. As for the “how,” he prayed for God to show the way and connect them with people who had the same passion. He turned to the contact list on his phone, hoping for a name to stick out to him from his old wrestling acquaintances. It was the last name on the list—“Zeb’s dad”—that struck him. Zeb had been a fellow wrestler in high school. Runzo texted his father, asking how Zeb was and received a short response “Hold on, one minute. I’m going to call you.” It turned out that this gentleman was in the middle of prayer, asking that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) could bring wrestling to Virginia Beach as a ministry. Runzo texted right as he was praying for the Lord to lead him to someone who could bring FCA wrestling to the area.
FCA wrestling is a wrestling club in which children are coached in the sport as well as taught about the Gospel, explains Runzo. They have conversations about Scripture and faith every time the club meets.
A week after learning about FCA wrestling, Runzo met with the area director for FCA, Zeb and his father, and a few more people in Virginia Beach. “The Lord laid things right in front of us,” he says. A friend and school wrestling coach told him about a vacant store that he was permitted to use as a training center. He offered to let Runzo use it for FCA wrestling as well.
“So literally in two weeks, we had done nothing on our own whatsoever and we already had a wrestling club up and running,” says Runzo. The kids who attended the club were “like sponges,” wanting to learn more. “It was something that they had never seen before, (that) I had never experienced before, as far as the setting; it was amazing,” he says.
How did Regent’s M.Div. program equip him?
“I was being trained to be a pastor, a shepherd and to lead in different areas of ministry,” says Runzo of the M.Div. program. “Not one day has gone by since seminary that I haven’t used any sort of skill or training or equipping,” he adds.
At Regent, Runzo also learned the importance of community and discipleship. “The biggest thing is not really something you can teach someone in terms of knowledge but you can hand it off to someone through just being together, living together, learning together, just being in the faith together,” he says.
“The Lord really showed me what it is like to walk with him,” says Runzo about his journey. “Prayer, prayer, prayer is the key for me.”
As for the future, Runzo intends to expand the number of clubs and to include other sports, such as baseball, football and soccer. He also wants to reach out to the youth through collegiate sports.
Ask Runzo how someone can change the world and he gives a simple answer. “Removing yourself from the equation and placing the Lord instead of you…It’s the same thing John the Baptist said: may I decrease that He may increase.” It is an equation he works on every single day.