ISLAMORADA, Fla. – When a childhood friend, Ryan Rutledge, called me last fall, he had a request that just about took my breath away.
Ryan and his then-fiancé, Natalie LaRocca, wanted me to officiate their wedding.
Ryan explained that they had not developed a relationship yet with a clergy member at any church near their new home in Ponte Veda, Florida, where they had relocated during the pandemic. Knowing I am Catholic and have done public speaking, Ryan shared an idea with Natalie.
“How about Larry?"
Natalie enthusiastically agreed.
How could I say no?
Soon after, in a process that was surprisingly quick, I was ordained online as a minister of the Universal Life Church. I printed off a certificate from the nondenominational religious organization, checking off the first item on my to-do list.
When my wife, Suzanne Mrozinski, and I were preparing to get married 18 years ago at St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church in Saline, Michigan, we went to workshops and spoke with clergy about our faith and the family we wanted to start together.
For Ryan and Natalie, I hoped to do my best from 1,000 miles away to help them prepare in a similar way. I also wanted to make the most of one of the greatest opportunities and responsibilities of my life.
I was joining a long list of first-time officiants. The Universal Life Church says it has ordained more than 20 million people and it is not the only organization offering the service.
The wedding planning website The Knot says its data shows 51% of couples in 2020 had a friend or family member officiate their wedding, an increase from 37% in 2015. And according to the 2020 Brides American Wedding Study, 25% of couples are married by a friend or family member.
“Modern couples want to say ‘I do,’ in their own way, and this includes the person who marries them," Brides magazine's associate editorial director Anna Price Olson said. “In working with someone who knows them so intimately, a couple is able to shape the ceremony into exactly what they want, making both the ceremony itself, and the experience of creating it, more personal for both the couple and their guests.”
Leaning on my three decades of sportswriting experience in Michigan, I peppered Ryan and Natalie with questions. I talked with them separately and together. I fact-checked my notes, of course, and I also left some of the details I'd gleaned as surprises that I hoped would make them laugh and cry.
Fortunately, I am accustomed to coming up with Plan B when there's an unexpected play and a rewrite is necessary. Like when I found out that Ryan’s sister, Regina Forest, was planning to read the same scripture I was, Corinthians 13.
“Love is patient," it reads. “Love is kind."
After looking into some other options, Colossians 3:12-14, seemed like a good fit, closing with, “...over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."
I compiled my notes into a Google doc, made a print and packed it in a red folder for my flight to South Florida.
When I arrived at the Postcard Inn Beach Resort and Marina in Islamorada, where the wedding was to take place on the beach, I got even more excited. And nervous. I was confident I would do OK, but I wanted to crush it and validate the faith Ryan and Nat had placed in me.
The wedding planner, Elizabeth Seligman, gave me some valuable tips, such as when to ask everyone to rise and when to sit.
“When you say, `You may now kiss the bride,' get out of the way so you're not in the picture," she said.
I feared forgetting to walk away and spoiling the image.
As Ryan and Natalie gathered with a little more than 100 family members and friends on a sun-splashed afternoon, I prayed that my preparation matched the magnitude of the moment.
Then, suddenly, I was calm as I stood in front of a microphone wearing a bright-blue suit that matched the one worn by Ryan and his twin, Regan. After asking everyone to be seated, I congratulated the parents of the bride and groom, Alice and Tony LaRocca, and Brenda and Jim Rutledge, for being married for almost a century combined.
I shared my belief that Providence, the divine guidance in our lives, is what brought Ryan and Natalie together. When Hurricane Florence forced Ryan to leave Charleston, South Carolina, in September 2018, he went to Florida and rekindled a relationship with Natalie that had begun at a wedding earlier that year. The weekend after the hurricane cleared, Ryan returned to meet Natalie's daughter, Mia, and their day at the beach sold the divorced mother that she had found what she was looking for.
When Hurricane Dorian battered the coast a year later, Ryan and Natalie were reunited again and found out she was pregnant.
“That day changed everything," Ryan told me. “We’re moving quicker that I thought. I was OK with it because she's the other half of me."
A few months after Cooper Rutledge was born, Ryan proposed.
I ended up relishing my role as a rookie officiant. After some reflection, I realized it was in my comfort zone because I interview people for a living and share their stories.
But as is true with my day job, it's not about me, and I remembered to get out of the way.
Follow Michigan-based AP sports writer Larry Lage on Twitter at https://twitter.com/larrylage