TJ Bruce is a man living in humble wisdom of one who stepped into the batter’s box of life and stared long and hard at the pitches coming in. He tried to keep up his own swing but ended up only hitting foul tips until he stepped out of the box to reevaluate his life and found God coming to bat with him. He’s now realigned his life and position as head coach of the University of Nevada men’s baseball team with God at the helm.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Bruce was an up-and-coming coach who climbed the ladder of college baseball with Long Beach State and UCLA. The Bruins won the national championship in 2013 and Bruce hit the height of baseball glory. But, after celebrating that night, he was already recruiting the next morning, wrestling with an unsettled and empty feeling inside. Though shaken by the surprising lack in life despite the highest achievement in college baseball, Bruce pushed through. When the University of Nevada Wolf Pack came knocking with the head coach offer in 2015, Bruce became the youngest head coach at the Division 1 level. On the surface, it looked like Bruce had it all. But as the next few months played out, he’d continue to battle what was brewing underneath the surface.
Three weeks into the fall semester, one of Bruce’s players died in his sleep from a heart condition. The news rocked the team, and Bruce reeled with a newfound realization that his position brought more than just determining a roster. “I’m 32 at the time, the youngest head coach in the country for D1--I thought I was just a coach,” he said. “Now I had to be a leader, confidant and a shoulder to comfort my players.”
Bruce explored uncharted territory, and the discoveries kept coming. One month later, his dad died. Within two months, two tragedies struck and left Bruce unraveling quietly on his own. His wife Heather was a principal in California, where she and their kids still lived. “Dealing with it alone, it was really tough,” he said, “I had no outlet.”
He began looking at life differently, but faith was far from the picture. He had gone to the Catholic church and knew all the prayers but wasn’t present with it. He was “checking the box.” Heather and the kids moved to Reno and the family re-evaluated their priorities.
FCA Nevada State Director James Kitchen was involved with the Wolf Pack for years, but with Bruce, relationship with both the team and its young head coach proved a challenge. He wouldn’t attend team chapels or barbeques at Kitchen’s home after practice, and many times Bruce would give Kitchen just the briefest acknowledgement after he had waited hours after a late-night game. But Kitchen stayed hopeful and faithfully offered his time and support. Prayer helped, too.
Heather, Bruce’s wife, began a friendship with Kitchen’s wife Sarah and attended Bible study together at Grace Church in Reno. Heather leaned into faith, but Bruce remained resistant, unsure why he was even walking into the church sanctuary with her. But he kept coming back. In September 2018, he began weekly meetings with the lead pastor, taking copious notes and ruminating on new concepts of faith. He felt a nudge from the Lord but wasn’t ready to act. “I was afraid of being judged; I wasn’t comfortable in my skin and who I was,” he admitted.
Rays of hope first appeared when Bruce approached Kitchen at practice to talk about coaching. He then asked Kitchen to speak to his players and blocked off time for team study, showing up with his FCA Bible and taking notes.
Bruce dove into self-examination and sifted through long-tangled lies and identity distortions. He finally asked himself the tough questions, and freedom in God broke through. He professed faith in Jesus Christ, getting baptized in January. Since then, His approach to life, family, coaching and player interaction has changed. Bruce can’t get enough, devouring sermons and podcasts, filling pages of journals with notes, getting into coaches’ studies and keeping Bibles all over. “As the state director, it’s humbling for me,” said Kitchen. “He had a really rough story. I thought he was too far gone, that it would take a lot of investment. God drew TJ. We were used as part of the process, but the Lord met TJ. It’s a full Paul turn in Damascus [in Acts 9]. When he opens his mouth, he’s unapologetic about Jesus.”
“I used to think if I had faith I’d be weak,” Bruce admitted. “But it’s a strength I have every day to understand I have Somebody in my corner, Someone I can talk to. I used to go to motivational quotes to inspire me; now it’s the Bible.”
Bruce looks back on his arduous journey and now identifies the fingerprints of God through the years. “He was speaking to me all along the way, back to the first message in 2013,” he said. “I heard it, because I felt it, but I wasn’t listening. Then in 2015, He got my attention a little, but not fully until the last year and a half when I turned myself inside-out.”
Coming to the end of himself and finding God waiting for him has been everything for Bruce.
“My identity used to be a baseball coach and if you weren’t in that circle, I wouldn’t talk to you,” he shared. “People are intimidated and afraid, a lot in part of what your peers are going to think of you. That was me. But as soon as you’re comfortable with who you are from the inside-out and identify with God, it’s good.”
Watch TJ Bruce's testimony video with Grace Church here.
To find out how to get involved with FCA Nevada ministry, visit their website.
Photos courtesy of University of Nevada Athletics and James Kitchen