WESLEY CHAPEL — Bill Renje still has a bullet in his right lung — a reminder of the path God chose for him 20 years ago.
That bullet turned Renje into a paraplegic at 18 and charted the course for his life: a gold medal Paralympian, a commercial Realtor, an author, a family man and man of God.
It's about turning "tragedy and destruction to triumph and redemption," said Renje, 39.
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His life turned on a fateful night in June 1989.
Renje grew up in Chicago, raised Methodist but not devout. He loved baseball and was crushed when he didn't make the high school team. He wallowed in self pity, let his grades slip, spent his time partying. He dabbled in drugs, and by the time he graduated from high school, he was hooked on crack cocaine.
That June night, he and a friend went to buy drugs when they found a raid under way. As Renje tried to drive away, an undercover police officer approached his window.
Renje hit the gas.
The officer began shooting.
A bullet ripped through his neck, severed his spinal cord and deflated his right lung.
"Please, God, don't let me go out like this," Renje thought as he drifted in and out of consciousness. "I don't want this to be my legacy."
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Renje was paralyzed from the chest down. He could use his arms and has partial use of his hands.
He realized he had received a second chance at life. He vowed not to squander it.
His family — both parents, two younger brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins — showered him with support. Going out in public, though, he could feel people staring at him. He felt different, self conscious, humiliated.
"I'm a leper," he thought. "I'm never going to have a dating relationship."
He forced himself out of the cocoon of his parents' house, went into the world and made friends.
"I realized people accept you for who you are, I just happen to be sitting down all the time," he said. "Whether you're in a wheelchair or not, if you have confidence, people will get to know you."
He pushed himself toward independence. He learned how to dress himself. He got his wheelchair into the car so he could drive. He went to community college and then the University of Illinois, where he received a bachelor's degree in sociology and a master's degree in journalism.
An avid Chicago sports fan, Renje found inspiration in the drive of athletes who overcame adversity. And he returned to athletics himself, joining the U.S. Paralympic wheelchair rugby team in 1991. He stuck with it, going from sitting on the bench to making nationals.
He won two gold medals with the team, in 1996 and 2000, traveling around the United States and to Australia.
Those victories translated off the rugby court. Work ethic. Struggle and perseverance. When you "learn how to compete at a high-level, you take those lessons into your life," he said.
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Renje's return to Christianity came after his best friend from childhood was released from prison. The friend had become devout behind bars, and Renje admired how his lifestyle was now much more pure.
"Where chaos had once ruled, there was now this peace," Renje said. "That was the clincher for me."
On Nov. 26, 1995, he went to church with a friend.
"I felt this overwhelming peace come over me, this void that I had been trying to fill" with partying and drugs in high school, then with rugby and other pursuits after his injury. "But none of it was filling that void."
In 1996, Renje was recruited to play for the Tampa Generals wheelchair rugby team. He moved to the area and began attending Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz. A girl named Amy caught his eye, and one day when he was too sick to come to church, she brought a plate of food to his apartment.
They spoke on the phone later, and he asked her to pray about going out with him.
She was newly saved and wasn't used to praying, but she tried it.
They were engaged three weeks later.
"God put us together," said Amy Renje, 34. "I know this sounds crazy, but I'm glad this happened to him," she said, because the injury is what made him turn his lie around and brought them tfogether.
They have a 5-year-old son they adopted from Nicaragua and 2½-year-old biological twins.
"He's an amazing husband and father," she said.
Together they lead a church-based group for married couples at their house in Seven Oaks. He speaks to men about how to be better husbands.
And now he's traveling to churches to speak about his book, A Chosen Bullet, which tells the story of his life's turnaround. Renje sold commercial real estate for 10 years, and while he did well financially he wasn't fulfilled. Someone told him to "think big and pray big," and that's how he decided to write his book.
"Fifteen years later it all came to fruition," he said.
In September he starts a job at the East Pasco location of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, mentoring high school coaches and players.
Matt Lobel of Tampa was following Renje's Paralympic journey and is now his accountability partner.
"Bill is a rock solid guy," he said. "The Lord never gives us more than we can handle. Obviously, Bill can handle a lot.
"Every time I feel sorry for myself, struggling with issues, I can always turn and see that he's never let any of the things get him down. He's a source of inspiration for me spiritually and personally."
Charlie Weaver of Tampa goes to church with Renje.
"I've never heard him complain," Weaver said. "His story is amazing because it would be easy for anyone to say 'Look at pitiful me.' "
"We really don't have a reason to feel sorry for ourselves for anything," Weaver continued. No matter what your issues or problems are, "You can still become anything you want to become. He's just an inspiration to all the people around him."