Major Leave: Athlete Chooses Faith Over Fame

Freshman political science major and baseball player Charlie Ellis watched Ryne Roper play ball on TV for the University of Illinois for two years. He followed the team’s seasons and was always impressed by the aptitude of the Division I athletes he watched.

When he joined Union’s team, Ellis found out he wouldn’t have to turn on the TV anymore to learn from Roper because he’d be playing right alongside him.

“We were warming up one time, and we just started throwing,” Ellis said, remembering his first impression. “I’m telling you, it was a little bit nerve-wracking trying to catch his ball because he was just throwing it so hard. I think that’s when I really realized that, man, this guy can play.”

A Harrisburg, Illinois native, Roper made the decision to switch schools after his older brother and teammate graduated from the University of Illinois in 2015. He heard about Union through family and friends and said he was excited for an opportunity to grow in his faith while he grew as an athlete.

“Honestly, growing in my faith is more important than playing Division I baseball, so that was the best decision for me,” he said.

By all accounts, the junior elementary education major has been an outstanding athlete and leader for the team in his first Division II season.

Between watching his older brother Reid play and his father Jeff coach the game, Roper started developing a love for baseball at just five years old. By the time he graduated from Harrisburg High School, he had collected a lengthy list of accolades and went on to play for the Fighting Illini.

“My brother was there playing baseball, so I went and played with him,” Roper said. “Last year was his last year. I knew that he was going to be done so I didn’t feel tied there anymore.”

Cooper Thompson, freshman Christian ministry and missions major, grew up around Roper and attended high school with him. He said many perceive Roper as a serious guy, but he has a goofy side that most people don’t see.

“He turns into Paul Walker when he’s in a golf cart,” Thompson said. “One time he was driving and we got stuck in this mud right on the fairway and just left this huge rut right in the middle of this really nice golf course.”

Bailey Holbrook, freshman athletic training major, said he was surprised to learn that Roper left Illinois to play for Union, but it made more sense after seeing Roper’s faith come through in his attitude on and off the field.

Assistant Coach Andy Rushing said he is glad to have Roper on the team to quietly lead his younger players by example—he is confident in his abilities but not conceited in any way.

“As a coach, I want to be kind of what he is as a player,” Rushing said. “I’ve thought about that in watching him go about his business.”

While the players and coaching staff agree Roper is a talented player, they emphasized that he is much more than an athlete.

“I think that he sometimes gets frustrated with people thinking that he’s just some amazing baseball player and that’s it to him,” Ellis said. “He’s very Christ-like, and I think that he would never say that about himself. If you want to know about the real Ryne Roper, I would say that’s
really what he is.”