Published: Dec. 15, 2012, at 2 p.m.
Baron Batch plays football, creates art and makes a mean salsa. But life wasn’t always as stress-free for the burgeoning renaissance man, who worked his way through an impossible childhood to become a Pittsburgh Steeler
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atch is a second-year running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, an angry downhill runner with an uncanny proficiency for picking up blitzes, a mean touch in the kitchen and brilliantly white teeth. When there's no candy or soda or really anything processed to eat as a child, tartar has no chance to take hold.
This story begins on a dirt road a half dozen miles off Highway 1787, somewhere outside Midland, Texas, and by an abandoned airstrip. A broken-down, partially charred, three-bedroom trailer sat out there, home to five Batch kids and, for a time, parents Joyce and Juan Batch. The Batch siblings were all two years apart, give or take a few months; the lone girl is the eldest, Baron is the middle child.
There wasn't a telephone in the house or enough beds. There were space heaters and an open oven door, towels and hoodies for coverings on the floor; the first time Baron would regularly sleep in a bed was college. There was, however, a vegetable garden out back. And there were books. Lots and lots of books, and a mother who demanded her children read them, speak clearly and never ferret out cause to complain.
“I never remember my mom complaining about anything,” Batch says, sitting in his living room in a rented home on the south side of Pittsburgh. “Looking back, knowing how bad it was, you know how hard it must have been on her. I can't imagine my future kids having to go through what I had to go through.”
“I feel like where I came from, that's why I work hard.”
aron Batch was a seventh-round draft pick out of Texas Tech in 2011. He quickly distinguished himself in camp, and running backs coach Kirby Wilson said he’d already pegged him to be the Steelers’ third-down back before a single kickoff. Then came the final practice before Pittsburgh’s first preseason game. Batch planted his foot oddly, felt his knee give and his first NFL season ended before it ever started.
He’d been down this road before. In college, he broke his ankle so severely he needed seven surgeries. Then a bone infection set in, turning everything to, as Batch recalled it, “mush.” He almost died; the hospital called in a priest to give him last rites.
As is his nature, he laughs about both ailments. First that college injury: “I’m glad they didn’t tell me they brought in a priest!” And then, last year’s injury: “It’s me. Everything has to be a little harder.”
Still, the Steelers saw something in Batch and so they kept him last August, putting him on injured reserve. He worked out at the team’s facility all season. He took Tupperware containers into the team cafeteria to bring home what might get thrown away otherwise, and Wilson said he never doubted Batch would be back this season. Neither did safety Troy Polamalu. Rookies’ faces all run together, but this one Polamalu remembered: In a one-on-one drill, Batch stood up to one-time Defensive Player of the Year and certifiably scary linebacker James Harrison. Rookies don't do that. Heck, veterans don't do that.
Baron and his coaches talk about his anger issues on the football field.
atch has always cooked. Vegetables from the garden, quail from the traps he and his brothers set and, when times were especially lean, cactus fried in butter. When Batch moved to Western Pennsylvania, he longed for the spicy food of West Texas. Discarding one grocery store salsa after another, he began experimenting with habanero peppers, tomatoes, limes and jalapeños. He perfected a now closely-guarded recipe and brought some into the Steelers’ locker room. As football players are wont to do, they dug in.
Batch's salsa is spicy. Beads of sweat pop up on the eater's nose. He can make it spicier. He can make it milder, too. But he won't.
“If you want it less spicy, you don't get any salsa,” he says. Wholly serious, of course. The salsa has turned into a burgeoning business in the locker room, albeit an unprofitable one. Batch charges only for ingredients. He packs the salsa in Mason jars from Target. Defensive end Ziggy Hood goes through a jar a week and said he couldn't care less what Batch's recipe is.
“As long as he keeps providing it, we're good,” he said.
Batch has no plans to market the salsa. Nor does he ever dream about seeing his face next to Paul Newman's in the local Giant Eagle. Cooking is about love, he says, and providing for those you love.
Baron Batch makes a homeade salsa that is famous among Steelers players.
his is where it gets dicey. Batch is working on repairing his relationship with his father Juan, and he does not want to jeopardize that. But Baron still admits to a lot of unresolved resentment at best, fury at worst. In Baron and his older brother Brian’s memory, Baron was in elementary school when his mother Joyce was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She slowly began the devastating process of deterioration, soon not being able to garden, then cook and then move without a wheelchair. Juan was building houses, away for months at a time, and then, when Baron said he was about 10, away forever, off to New Orleans and largely out of his children’s lives.
In a recent phone conversation, Juan Batch didn’t want to fully confirm that, but he didn’t dispute it either. He said he is extremely proud of his kids and praises the “training” his children received from their mother. But he quietly admits, in a roundabout way, something eldest son Brian surmised a few weeks before: that reality became a bit overwhelming, especially when his wife’s health worsened.
“From my standpoint and their standpoint, it was so traumatic. I found myself more than once (feeling that) doing the business, raising the kids -- I found it to be extremely stressful,” Juan Batch said. “For the kids to come through all of that and be adjusted and for them to have the relationship with me they do, I think it’s God. He had a hand in it. He said, ‘We’re going to get you through this.’ ”
Dad was gone. Mom’s health was rapidly robbing her of independence. The austere Batch home became even more so. And then came the day when the Batch children came home from school to find their mother sprawled on the floor. She’d tumbled out of her wheelchair, couldn’t haul herself back in and stayed there all day, waiting.
Brian guesses he was 13 at this point; the oldest, Bridget, 15. This whole time period is hazy for the Batch kids; probably purposefully, Baron acknowledges. The kids sat together and accepted that their mother needed more care and attention than they could give. With the help of their father’s brother, a doctor in Odessa, Texas, they had her placed in a full-time nursing facility.
Baron is fairly sure the state paid for it. He is also fairly sure there was no debate amongst the siblings, that there was a solemn recognition this was the only choice. And as he talks, he remembers the day she was actually taken away, a short time after the fall.
“I got home from school and I was expecting her just to be there,” Baron says. “I knew the situation, but I was still expecting her to be home, just because that’s how it had been. I remember I got home and she wasn’t there. ...
“And I remember, I got home and in lipstick, she wrote on the wall, ‘I love you.’ ” He pauses, his eyes well up and then he claps to push the tears away: “I didn’t even know I remember that.”
Baron Batch discusses his complicated relationship with his father over the years.
he next few years are all a blur. The Batch siblings lived without any daily adult supervision. Because they lived so far out in the country, school was an hour away. They still got up every day and rode the bus down dusty roads. They did their homework on the rides home and Bridget, Baron said, “kept us all functioning.” Their uncle would sometimes bring food, as would family friends who knew they were alone. When no one did, they managed with the garden and game they caught. Brian doesn’t remember ever skipping the school bus.
“To be perfectly honest, we got free lunches at school. That was one of the reasons why I think everyone made it,” Brian says.
“It was stay where we were at, don’t make the situation better, or go to school and get away,” Baron says. “I always knew school was my way out.”
Brian and Baron both remember social workers coming by, checking out their living conditions (poor),
their food intake (scarce) and the adult presence (none). But the Batch siblings refused to be separated. And for reasons no one can remember or explain, Child Protective Services acquiesced.
One day in high school, Baron went into his football coach’s office wearing the most somber of faces, saying he needed to talk. The coach, Rodney Sims, remembers girding himself, before Baron told him a friend of his thought he’d seen his younger brother Brandon at a party, possibly taking a sip out of a beer can.
“Here I was, I thought Brandon was out stealing and robbing,” Sims said with a deep belly laugh all these years later. “They just have this system that every one of them will be successful. They look out for each other, they are accountable to each other. It’s something I can’t quite explain.”
Brandon, sitting at a Steelers-Redskins game in October and a few weeks from finding out he’d been selected for a congressional internship, just smiles when asked if he actually had been drinking that beer.
ims was a very young teacher when he had Brian Batch in his seventh grade gym class. At the end of the year, Brian wrote him a note. It said he’d have some younger siblings coming through over the next few years and asked if Sims would look out for them. Sims still has that note, patched together by tape. He pledged to himself he would, not knowing then that there wasn’t a parent at home. The only thing he ever noticed about the Batch siblings those first few years was their unfailing politeness -- and that they each only wore two sets of jeans.
By the time Baron hit ninth grade, Sims had moved up to Midland High School. An assistant coach on the varsity football team, he went to check out the ninth grade team. And came away entirely unimpressed by Baron.
“He was soft as you can ever imagine. He was horrible,” Sims said. In that first game, Baron came to the sideline, holding his shoulder. Sims watched as Baron told the trainer the pain moved to his ribs, and then up to his neck. “I’m thinking, ‘This kid, he doesn’t want to play football.’ ”
Still, Baron was fast. And Sims had made that long-ago pledge to Brian.
Baron had at this point moved in with his friend Jesse McDowell, who lived in a trailer 20 minutes from school. Baron was playing football and there was no bus that could take him all the way to the Batch home after practice. Baron initially slept at the McDowell trailer occasionally, missing practice when he didn’t, until McDowell’s father Tim suggested he just come stay full time.
“These people didn’t have money either. And they became my family, too,” Baron says. “I'll call them guardian angels. There was always people I feel God put at the right spot at the perfect time to provide when there was, like, no provision really.”
So it was the summer after Baron’s ninth grade year that Sims started picking up Baron at the McDowell trailer. Sims would wait for the 15-year-old to come out of the trailer and trudge the 25 yards to his car. (“He always had this look on his face: ‘Crap, he came again,’ ” Sims remembered.) He’d take him to work out, all the while telling him to trust. He taught him how to cut, upped his bench press and made him a football player.
By Baron’s junior year, he’d gone to two state track meets, a tough feat in Texas. He was bench pressing close to 400 pounds and Sims said he finally started looking at his charge differently. The colleges started coming around and soon he had a dozen offers, from schools as far as Duke and Northwestern and as close as Texas A&M and Texas Tech. Tech was closest and so Batch committed to the Red Raiders.
“At the end of every school year, we have a ritual, a tradition. You burn your old shoe in a big fire, talk about your football career and pass down something to the younger class,” Sims said. Taking a breath, his voice breaking, Sims said Baron’s senior year, Baron stood up and said to his teammates, “Coach promised if I trusted him, I’d be able to go wherever I want. I trusted him.”
oyce Batch passed away when Baron was in ninth grade. She’d been hospitalized, the Batch siblings had braced themselves somewhat for it and in terms of daily routine, she hadn’t been home for some time. But she was their rock. She was Baron’s rock.
“My mom was the only person that would ever know how to calm me down,” Baron says. “Whenever I’d get mad, she’d make me say this poem. ‘Temper, temper, my temper is lost. I always see devil when my eyes are crossed.’ ”
rian Batch admits he was initially worried the NFL lifestyle and NFL paycheck might change his little brother. With money comes things the Batch family never had. But the most expensive thing Baron Batch said he’s bought is a set of kitchen knives.
Baron took up painting about eight months ago because he didn’t “just want to go buy art at IKEA.” He has such a natural affinity for it, Troy Polamalu’s wife asked Baron to paint something for their home. It’s hanging in the family living room, Polamalu said.
Baron writes an open journal on his blog. He is thoughtful and introspective, doesn’t talk much about football and said he’d like to write a book one day. He wrote an occasional column for both the Midland and Lubbock newspapers when he was in college. Uncommonly mature is how one of his Texas Tech coaches remembers him.
The Batch siblings remain close and all are successful. Bridget is in Las Vegas, working in retail. Brian, a University of Texas graduate, is a musician living in Austin. Brandon is about to graduate from Texas Tech and begin that prestigious congressional internship in Washington D.C. Baby Bryson is in the Marine Corps.
Baron will make north of $400,000 this year. And Brian said the Batch siblings are more likely to ask him for a loan than their NFL running back brother. “It’s important he knows and feels his money doesn’t mean anything to us. I’m happy he has it, I’m happy he can do things he wants to do, but it doesn’t change who he is, it doesn’t change our relationship,” Brian said.
All the Batch siblings are working on their relationship with their dad. Juan Batch came to that Steelers game with Brandon in October, sitting in a cold rain all day, gleefully waving a Terrible Towel. Baron said it was the first time his father had seen him play a game -- in high school, college or the NFL. Juan said he knew his son would be a football player, even though he never personally had an affinity for the game: “He was born with muscles. He was the only one of my children born with muscles.”
Baron Batch is happy. He is fourth in a talented stable of Steelers running backs. He hit a bit of lousy luck a few weeks back, when first Ben Roethlisberger and then back-up quarterback Byron Leftwich went down with rib injuries. The Steelers had to bring in another quarterback and to make room, Baron was waived and then signed to the practice squad. The quarterbacks got healthy, another team tried to sign Baron to its active roster and so prior to Week 15, one game after the Steelers were horrific on third downs, Pittsburgh promoted him back to its 53-man roster.
Back in October, Baron was named a Steelers special teams captain. He fits in this locker room. Polamalu, one of the more cerebral players in all of football, said he enjoys his company. Dwyer said he’s a “phenomenal” teammate. And after Baron let a sure touchdown pass -- on a gadget play -- get lost in the lights, fiercely intense offensive coordinator Todd Haley saw him the next day, grinned at him and wrapped him in a bear hug.
Baron turns 25 on Dec. 21 and is in what’s really just his first year of professional football. While he hopes football will be a platform to other things, he also wants to one day be an every-down, Pro Bowl, Hall of Fame running back. And he always, every day, hears his mother’s voice say, “Have faith.”
“I'll always remember what it was like not to have food, to wish I had the scraps off someone's plate that they didn't eat,” Baron says. “I think it's all about remembering where you came from at the end of the day. Not just remembering what it was like, but remembering it and appreciating it.”