I don’t believe the world is a particularly beautiful place, but I do believe in redemption- Colum McCann
"I guess it’s been 19 years," Charlie Batch trailed off and paused.
Homestead, PA. February 18,1996.
"She was shot in the side of the head, caught in a crossfire between rival gangs," he continued.
The former backup quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers was talking about his sister Danyl Settles and the day her life on earth came to an abrupt end. This was also the day Charlie Batch's destiny became clear. From that day, the purpose of everything he had done to that point-- and would do in the future-- would be to honor his sister.
In the face of loss and trauma, some box up the pain, pack it away, and move forward comfortably numb. Instead Batch faced his horrific reality and found his life’s purpose the painfully senseless death of his seventeen-year-old little sister.
"I said if I was ever in a position to give back to the community I would," he told me.
Suddenly, his primary goal in life was not just to fulfill his dream of playing professional football, it was to redeem the event that could have destroyed him. Instead of viewing a possible career in the NFL—and the wealth that can accompany such a career-- as a means to the Caligulan indulgence and excess common in professional sports, he realized it could provide the resources for him to honor his sister and give back to the community.
"Going through high school and part of college," he shared, "I never imagined I’d be in this situation in terms of my foundation. That life-changing situation didn’t come until 1996. At that point, at that moment, that’s when I knew I wanted to focus on making an impact in our community."
Finishing his degree at Eastern Michigan University and getting drafted were more important than ever. Batch was drafted in the second round by the Detroit Lions in 1998, and started the first iteration of foundation in 1999 while living in Detroit.
While the death of his sister gave Charlie Batch purpose, a December 24, 2000 game against the division-rival Chicago Bears proved to be a key event in seeing it through to fruition. Though not apparent at the time, this was butterfly effect in full force. In two seconds a kicker named Paul Edinger would dramatically change the course of his life.
Before 71,957 fans in the Pontiac Silverdome with 6:31 left in the game, the Bears took the lead over the Lions for the second time that day after a 61-yard interception return by the not-yet-dreadlocked R.W. McQuarters, the 49ers first-round pick in 1998, the same draft class as Batch. Shortly after the two-minute warning, Lions’ Jason Hanson tied the game with a 26-yard field goal. Two seconds away from overtime, the Bears Paul Edinger attempted a 54-yard field goal, which sailed through the uprights, crushing the Lions hope for a playoff appearance.
The Lions finished that season 9-7, but that loss to the Bears resulted in a change of leadership within the Lions organization and the beginning of the Matt Millen era. After a disappointing 2-14 record in 2002 on the heels of the 2001 almost-but-not-quite-playoff season, Batch, along with many of his teammates, was released.
Fatefully, the Steelers signed Batch to a one-year contract in 2002 as a backup. One year turned into two, two years turned into five, five turned into ten, until he retired in 2013 after 11 years with the Black and Gold. That move to Pittsburgh didn’t just result in his homecoming and a long, successful football career, it provided the impetus for the Batch Foundation.
"When I came back home in 2002," he recounted, "I said, ‘Now let’s really start the program.’" He went on to explain, "At the beginning the program was just to get the kids off the streets, to give them something to do."
"The program," as Batch casually calls it, has breathed life and hope into Homestead. Initially, the Program (it seems undignified not to capitalize it) provided a safe haven for disadvantaged children by offering basketball. "My goal," he explained, "was to tire the kids out so they would go home and go to bed. A lot of kids are in single-parents households and it is a way for working parents to know where their kids are from 4 pm to 10 pm."
The basketball program, called Project C.H.U.C.K. (Continuously Helping Uplift Community Kids), is in its 14th year and instills in children far more than basketball skills. It teaches them discipline, self-confidence, and team work. One key part of the program is tutoring. Participants can’t play basketball unless they do study time on site with volunteer tutors, some of whom are graduates of the program.
Education is of the utmost importance to Batch. "They see the end result of me being a professional football player, but they don’t see the journey that I took to get here."
Basketball and Batch’s background with the Steelers is the initial draw. "I wouldn’t have many takers if I said, ‘Hey, meet me at the library, we’re going to read a book.’" Once he has made contact, the Batch Foundation can have greater influence and impact. "We can implement any educational component we choose," he said. These educational initiatives range from basic life competencies to computer skills to literacy.
Batch’s foundation helps 3,300 children across six counties each year. The Program is no longer limited to basketball. He also runs a school for court-referred children and those who have been expelled. The plan is to expand the school into a soon-to-be-constructed state-of-the-art facility that can provide all-day schooling for children in elementary school through graduation.
Sometimes, though, the biggest help is meeting children’s basic needs. "We don’t know how many meals they are getting," he said. "Sometimes lunch is the only meal of the day for these kids. They know they can stop in, grab a snack, and continue on." His foundation also provides Batch-Packs, backpacks full of essential back-to-school supplies for underprivileged students. "That way they don’t fall behind because they don’t have crayons or pencils," he said.
Batch also understands the impact of trauma and poverty on a child’s emotional and psychological health. By participating in the program, children also have access to referrals to helpful community resources that can change the course of their academic experience. "A lot of it comes down to identifying what the problem is," Batch said. "If you’re not evaluated early enough, you can fall through the cracks. We have after school programs where a lot of kids come to our physical building. They spend time with volunteers who can identify what problems there might be and we can provide referrals to professionals who can help with those issues."
The children aren’t just participating in Batch’s Program, they are often with Charlie Batch himself who frequently works twelve-hour days. Sometimes he is tired, he admitted. "But then I think to myself, ‘We need to be there for the kids. I see the smiles on their faces and it reminds me it is well worth it and that it is good work."
Perhaps the strongest benefit of Batch’s foundation is the human connection. Batch told me of one former program participant he recently encountered. "He came back and said, ‘I’m a teacher now.’" Batch asked his former student if he ever thought he would be a teacher, recounting, "He answered, ‘I realized the importance of education and the people who volunteered their time to help me and I wanted to make sure I could make an impact on my community too.’" Batch told me he has many former participants who go to college and then come back to volunteer.
I asked Batch how he would like to be described by people who know of him. An hour into our conversation, his answer did not surprise me. Before speaking with him, however, I would have assumed he would have wanted to be known as a reliable backup or steadfast mentor because of his time with the Steelers. After hearing his story and understanding his purpose, I understood football was a means to a much more important end. He replied, "I just want people to say, ‘He made a difference.’" He even has an acronym for that: RU MAD? Are you making a difference?
Eighteen years after her death, Danyl Settles lives on in the Charlie Batch Foundation, and a neighborhood that was once rife with violence and tragedy has found redemption.
Charlie Batch is making a difference.
Batch reminded me that even though he has unique resources, everyone can share their time, the most valuable resource of all. For more information or to get involved, please visit: