Pastor Timothy Babatunde preaches his message of empowerment from the pulpit at Christ Temple, 27 S. 5th St., in Darby Borough, on a one-on-one level with drug dealers and on the soccer field. He uses what he calls “simple words” to connect. Simple words with a big impact on both his own life and the lives others.
One of six children born in Lagos, Nigeria, Babatunde grew up Baptist with parents who stressed the importance of discipline and hard work. At 19 years-old he came to the states for pastoral studies and eventually ended up at Lancaster Bible College on a scholarship for soccer where he played striker and “anything. I used both legs.”
“It was like putting me back into the river. I was like a fish,” said Babatunde of college soccer.
His passion – as a child and today- when he speaks in his Christ Temple office, is soccer. The mere mention of the game energizes him more than a six-pack of energy drinks. A smile stretches across his face. His eyes get a wild-and-wide look, like a child on Christmas morning. He begins to shift in his seat; an eager player waiting for the coach to look his way to give him the nod to enter the game.
“Soccer was like food,” he says about playing soccer as a child. “I live soccer. My childhood dream was to play soccer, talk to people and touch people’s lives. To impact people’s life is a high for me. I know what to do with soccer. I know how to set up programs.”
A shepherd knows his flock and Babatunde saw a part of his was missing. The 14-18 year-old crowd was conspicuously absent. He decided to use soccer as a conversational tool to reach young men. At first, he got some strange looks but eventually a name was suggested, CT United, and a few boys joined. At one of their first practices at a football field in Colwyn, they were greeted by a snake.
“Is this a bad omen or what?” We got over it and I knew we needed a soccer pitch,” said Babatunde. “I don’t like to fail. I like challenges.”
Word started spreading about CT United and more players from the area joined along with a few volunteer coaches. In May 2014, CT United started training with the goal of eventually playing in a league.
You can’t put a fish back into water and expect it not to swim. Surrounded by the game he loves, Babatunde, 54, competed in drills and ran with the players despite sore muscles later.
“I am trying to impart what I know,” said Babatunde, a married father of two. “Sometimes I will do a move and the players go, ‘Whoa coach!’ I tell them, ‘Guys, I have it in my blood. Maybe not in my legs anymore…”
CT United eventually ended up at Bell Avenue. Although it isn’t a picturesque pitch – the area near the goals are mostly dirt – it is part of a dream realized for Babatunde who, at times in Nigeria, played in bare feet in dirt fields with pieces of plastic rolled into a ball.
CT United zeroed in on joining the Delco Soccer League Under-19 Fall League. At first, Babatunde wasn’t prepared for the stringent requirements and deadlines of the league for various types of paperwork. With the help of his computer-savvy soccer squad they were able to register in time but then faced a funding problem.
Babatunde asked members of the church who immediately put up money for jerseys. “They have been so good,” he says of Christ Temple.
“We are going into this league and we are coming out with the trophy,” he told members of the church despite knowing that some teams in the league had been established for decades.
CT United delivered. They finished the season an undefeated 7 -0-0 and won the championship.
For Babatunde and CT United, it’s not only about a championship or the State Cup in May, it’s about the main principles of the free-of-charge-to-the-players program. Practices and training are intense and the players are in peak physical condition. But it’s not just dribbling drills and corner kicks. Coaches talk about life issues and preach unity, brotherhood and discipline. The players come from diverse backgrounds and are Haitian, Liberian, Hispanic, African American, and Indian. Most lack a father figure and call Babatunde “dad.”
“We can catch them in an unusual way,” Babatunde says. “Now the young boys, they want to be CT United. I believe I have a responsibility. I’m using soccer as a conveyer belt; whatever you drop on it takes you wherever you want it to go.”
During their first year playing together in a league, the team relied on its strength and speed.
“We were really hungry. Every player on the team has their own set of skills and speed and ability to play the game,” said Emmanuel Chea. “Coach wants us to be disciplined and enjoy the game.”
Their Number One supporter is easy to spot. After the team scores, Babatunde runs across the sideline screaming, like he just netted the winning goal in the World Cup.
“You can see it in his face. At practice, on the field, he is always talking about the game, trying to make us better and work harder. He’s a great coach,” said Chea.
The players and the coaches are currently in light training for the State Cup. They are aware of the need for additional funds, supporters, and an indoor practice facility but on a chilly, December afternoon the boys’ focus is singular when they are in between the white lines.
“With soccer you can do anything. Nothing is impossible,” said Chea.
Babatunde is an example and a witness.