Steelers' Batch more than just football player
Disillusioned after the Ohio State scandal that further eroded the amateur ideal of college football• Fed up with NFL owners and players still divided over how to share more than $9 billion in annual revenue?
Well, meet Baron Batch.
The newest addition to the Steelers' offensive backfield is a writer, photographer and humanitarian. Last week, Batch, who's not related to Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch, wandered into a news-writing class at Texas Tech, even though he graduated this past December with a degree in communications studies. Batch, who has been working out at Tech during the NFL lockout, plans to drop in on summer Spanish classes just to brush up on the subject he nearly minored.
Such behavior may not be the norm for 23-year-olds or professional athletes, and particularly not 23-year-old professional athletes. Yet it is the essence of Batch, who ranks in the top 10 of Texas Tech's rushing leaders but considers it an insult of the highest order should someone label the 5-foot-10, 210-pounder as "just a football player."
"I want to do everything. I tell people that and they say, 'Baron, you can't do everything,' " said Batch, the Steelers' seventh-round draft choice this past April. "I want to write. I want to travel. Whatever else I feel passionate about. I want to help people. I want to speak. I want to do a lot of things."
Batch traveled to Haiti in early January, spending time with orphaned children and documenting the mission for "Operation Hope," a non-profit group. He sells portraits from the pictures he took, with proceeds paying for the impoverished children to attend school in the Caribbean country.
Batch has helped closer to home, too.
He penned a column for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal last year about not giving up after a trying Texas Tech loss. A man later introduced himself to Batch in a supermarket and told him he had seen the column. He had seen the column while covering the floor at home in newsprint, readying to shoot himself.
Batch's message resonated with the man so much that he decided against ending his life. And he left the normally loquacious Batch virtually speechless following their chance encounter.
"I never would have imagined some words would have made such an impact," Batch said. "It really encouraged me to keep doing it."
The ultimate survivor
Batch is uniquely qualified to write about persevering. His life is a tableau for such a tale.
His mother battled multiple sclerosis, and money was so tight while Batch was growing up in Odessa that heat during the cold nights on the wind-swept west Texas plains qualified as a luxury. He sometimes slept next to a space heater just to stay warm.
Batch's mother died when he was a freshman in high school, forcing him to stay with a friend. The adversity didn't stop Batch from excelling at football and track — and the classroom — at Midland High School.
During track season, Batch, an accomplished sprinter, would lift at night. Sometimes Craig Yenzer, Midland's football coach, would have to chase Batch out of the weight room just so Yenzer could go home and see his wife.
Of course, Yenzer could arrive home well after dark and not so much as receive a cold stare if he explained that he had been spotting Batch in the weight room.
"My wife thinks he's about the greatest thing in the world," Yenzer said. "He had a lot of reasons to get down on life and he would not let that happen."
Nor would he get down on life after breaking his ankle during his freshman season at Texas Tech. A staph infection and other complications followed, requiring six additional surgeries and nearly derailing his football career.
Batch emerged from the ordeal spiritually stronger, and after a redshirt season, he returned to football in 2008 and scored eight touchdowns while averaging 6.7 yards per carry.
But football was far from Batch's only pursuit in Lubbock.
He started a blog that led to writing regularly for the Lubbock newspaper, as well as the Midland Reporter-Telegram.
His writing is deeply personal and poignant. Any number of passages from his blog — "Sometimes a lie can be dressed so properly that it can even deceive the tongue from which it was conceived," he wrote in one entry — offers proof that writing is anything but a whim for Batch.
"He really likes the craft part of it," said Lubbock Journal-Avalanche sports editor Courtney Linehan, who worked with Batch. "If you read some of his stuff from beginning to end, he has themes and motifs. Pretty impressive."
Batch impressed on the football field as well but never had that breakout season. That tends to happen in an offense where the quarterback attempts more passes than a NASCAR driver. He bulked up his senior season and played anywhere between 220 and 225 pounds. But his coaches said he carried too much weight. That caused a dip in production after Batch averaged better than five yards a carry and rushed for 14 touchdowns as a junior.
"He's a much, much better player at 210," Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "He's extremely good at picking up the blitz. He's very good at catching the ball out of the backfield. He finishes runs. He's not a guy that's going to make a ton of guys miss in the second level, but he understands who he is and plays to his strengths."
The Steelers were intrigued enough by Batch — the slimmed-down version ran a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash at Texas Tech Pro Day — that they hosted him for a pre-draft visit in April. A couple of weeks later, they made him their final pick of the draft, No. 232 overall.
And as memorable as it is to be drafted by an NFL franchise, Batch won't soon forget the Saturday the Steelers selected him for an entirely different reason.
It's the same weekend he reconciled with his father.
No hurdle too tall
The blog post is entitled "860 miles to forgiveness."
It is the distance Batch drove to New Orleans from Texas to spend the weekend of the draft with his father. It is also symbolic of how far apart the two had grown following a divorce that kept Juan Batch from playing much of a role in Baron's life.
The younger Batch made the trip to New Orleans after some serious soul searching and a concession to forgive, and the walls between father and son came crumbling down thereafter.
They went fishing. When the Steelers drafted Batch, they hugged.
The two talk or text each other on a regular basis, and their story seems destined for a happy ending.
"It's actually going really well," Batch said last week of his relationship with his father. "It's really pretty cool that it all worked out that way."
The feel-good story that Batch has authored will recede into the background when the time comes to play his way onto the Steelers' 53-man roster. The team is not particularly deep at running back, but Batch is in the subset of players most adversely affected by the lockout.
He did not have the benefit of offseason practices to learn the offense. And, like other low-round draft choices, he may not get as much leeway with the coaches. Teams make much more of an investment in high-round picks.
"It's just another hurdle," said Batch, who had to pass on a recent mission trip to Haiti in the event the lockout ends. "I can only control how hard I work, and I'm going to work hard. If that's not enough and I don't make the team, then I guarantee you I won't look back and say I could have done any more.
"I know I can play in the NFL."Additional Information:
Steelers rookie running back Baron Batch has blogged for three years. Check out his thoughts at Baronbatch.blogspot.com