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Faith and Sports

Gospel artist Todd Dulaney traded his professional baseball career for a life of faith

‘I wanted to give myself to the wholehearted pursuit of God, so that is what I did — and I never looked back’

A look at the intersection of sports, faith and religion

Growing up, all Todd Dulaney wanted to do was play professional baseball. When he was drafted by the New York Mets in 2002, the second baseman was in seventh heaven.

But it was his initial meeting with famed pitcher Pedro Martinez that had a lasting effect on Dulaney.

“Man, I thought you were bigger,” Dulaney said to Martinez.

“I just have a big arm, and a big faith in God,” Martinez replied.

“That moment really shocked me,” Dulaney said. “Martinez is someone who continued to share his faith in God with me and with younger players in the league, and I will never forget that. I appreciated it.

“Sports has such a pull on our hearts. We love our sports … and I believe that people are actually looking to turn to God. We are looking for answers, and we are looking for faith answers. It makes sense for the two to collide, because these are the two things that capture our attention. We can bring love and peace into our world through something that we enjoy doing so much. We enjoy getting together on Sundays to watch football. We love to gather at the ballpark and watch a game …

“Sports has our attention and offers a message of love and hope and peace during a time when we need it most. It is a beautiful relationship because the sports world is one place where you get a chance to see different ethnic backgrounds working together.”

Dulaney was drafted out of Wabash Valley College in Southern Illinois when he was 18 and spent four years in the minor leagues. He was a talented and tough athlete, with grit earned from playing streetball.

“When I was a kid, we played every sport, depending on the season,” Dulaney said. “We played football in the street during football season and baseball during baseball season. I was the youngest kid on my block, so I played against kids who were older and stronger than me. I ended up really excelling at baseball. I saw people doing well and making a lot of money playing ball professionally, so that’s what I thought I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

When he signed his professional contract, Dulaney was a boy thrust into a man’s world.

“Playing professional baseball at 18 was more than I was prepared for. Mentally, it was a lot,” he said. “I was playing from the perspective of being a kid … and I realized quickly that this is a job and people are serious about feeding their families and pursuing it as more than just a game. That caught me off guard. I realized that I was no longer a kid and I couldn’t conduct myself as a kid.

“You don’t get a day off because ‘Oh, this guy isn’t very good,’ ” he said. “Everybody is strong, everybody is fast, everybody throws hard, everybody hits hard.”

Four years into his professional baseball career, Dulaney went home to the Chicago area during the offseason. A young lady he was dating invited him to church. That day would change the trajectory of his life. By the end of the service, he was standing at the altar. For the first time in his life, he felt something stronger than baseball tugging on his heart. He wanted to go all-in — this time, for God.

He decided to leave baseball to pursue a life dedicated to his faith, which led him to become a gospel singer.

“My family and friends thought I was crazy for leaving baseball,” Dulaney said. “But I knew that is what I needed to do and what I wanted to do. I wanted to give myself to the wholehearted pursuit of God, so that is what I did — and I never looked back.”

The church Dulaney had attended that evening was Victory Cathedral Worship Center in Bolingbrook, Illinois, led by pastor and Grammy-winning singer Smokie Norful. After retiring in 2005, he began singing background vocals for Norful and toured with him.

Today, Dulaney is 34 and a chart-topping, Grammy-nominated gospel artist. He still loves baseball and keeps in touch with some of his former teammates. Dulaney recently recorded a power anthem called “I Can’t Be Stopped” that was inspired by the sports world and his experience as an athlete. Still, he believes his life and his impact are bigger and more potent than he could have ever dreamed.

Besides his brief encounter with Martinez, Dulaney recounted what he learned from former MLB All-Star Cliff Floyd. Dulaney considers himself a giver at heart, a trait he picked up from Floyd.

“He was a millionaire many times over who really took me under his wing,” Dulaney said. “I was in the minor leagues and didn’t have much, and Cliff would make sure I ate and send me bats and gloves, and just made sure that I was never without anything. Once when I was going on a date, Cliff loaned me his car. The young lady thought I was the man. Words cannot express the gratitude that I have for him. Cliff Floyd taught me how to be a giver in my own life. That seed is still in my heart. I love to give to people the way that Cliff Floyd gave to me.”

As Dulaney has matured as a Christian, he believes being a professional baseball player and a man of faith can coexist.

“If I had known then what I know now, I would have used one to catapult the other. But I was not mature enough then to use my gifts at the same time,” Dulaney said. “Thinking about that now, I would definitely do both of them. … My faith would play a huge role in keeping me consistent about playing professional ball. When I grew in my faith, I realized that I didn’t need to engage anymore in about 70 percent of what I was doing. I didn’t need clubbing, drinking, staying out late. I didn’t need or want any of that. Maturing in my faith really opened my eyes to how much time I was wasting.”

Sports is still a part of Dulaney’s life. He’s a fan of the Carolina Panthers, and his favorite athlete is LeBron James.

“More so because of who he is off the court,” Dulaney said. “He is doing what I want to do as far as being a husband and a father.”

Dulaney maintains an intense travel schedule, but he works out regularly on the road.

“I’ve bulked up to 200 pounds now [30 pounds more than his playing weight]. When I am at home, I miss workouts because I feel compelled to be at home, spend time with my wife, take my kids to school and just be present.”

Faith and sports continue to stay in his heart.

“I would not trade that [baseball] experience for anything,” Dulaney said. “It instilled professional competition in me. You don’t get that type of competition at amateur levels, and when you leave, you take that with you. I have something on the inside of me that has competed at the highest level, and I take that everywhere. So, even with music, my approach is that I don’t release a song to be No. 5. I release a song to be No. 1. I have that level of competition and excellence with everything.”

Kymberlee Norsworthy is an award-winning publicist and founder of This Gospel Life (www.thisgospellife.com). Her two obsessions are Cuban coffee and her Russian blue, ASPCA adopted cat, Corduroy