Football is like life- it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication, and respect for authority - Vince Lombardi
Charlie Batch often considers counterfactuals, and if one looks at his career, there are many points where a different decision or event would have had a significant impact on his life's course. If Ben hadn't hurt his rib; if he hadn't been cut; if the Lions hadn't blown their shot at the playoffs by losing to the Bears in 2001; if he had decided to drop out of college after the death of his sister.... I am not sure how Batch sees his alternate reality, the one in which the Lions beat the Bears and went to the playoffs and kept him on the squad as their starter. The one in which Ben and Leftwich were healthy. The one in which he didn't play football, and the one in which he wasn't in a position to make a difference.
Batch did play football, and his love for the sport is the reason he becomes so animated when he talks about his time with the Steelers, the he had a hard time driving past Heinz Field after his retirement, and the reason he is involved in radio and TV football commentary today.
Injury, losses, and tragedy
Perhaps the memory fans love the most, and the one that means the most to Batch, is his triumph over the Baltimore Ravens on December 2, 2012. The context for this win makes it even more significant.
Ben Roethlisberger was suffering from a rare and life threatening rib injury, a result of a dislocation that happened as he heard a disconcerting "crunch and a crack" during the Steelers victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. Second-string QB Byron Leftwich also had a rib injury. This combination of events left the starting job for the Cleveland game to then 37-year-old Batch. The game he quarterbacked included a humiliating eight turnovers along with fumbles by all four running backs. It was an unmitigated disaster.
At the time, Batch took responsibility for the loss saying, "We had a chance to win, actually two, and I turned it over." Mike Tomlin, however, blamed the loss on an unfortunate combination of turnovers and penalties, "When you do those things, you're going to lose. I don't care who is playing quarterback."
Batch had to regroup after that loss and prepare for the upcoming Ravens game in Baltimore, a task that was even more difficult since he wouldn't find out if he was starting until the Friday evening before the game. "I didn't know if I would have another opportunity to start because of the performance I had the week before against Cleveland," he recalled. "Ben had also been practicing all week."
Thursday before the game, Batch was still unsure if he was going to play on Sunday and he was also reeling from the death of his pet Rottweiler Roxie. "I love being around animals," Batch told me. "They give that unconditional love. It doesn't matter what kind of day I'm having. They're always excited when I come home"
This loss was soul-crushing. After Roxie died, Batch posted in his dog's voice, "Well guys, I'm tired and I lost my hind leg strength. I put up a good fight, but now I must rest & watch over my dad. Thank you everyone for all the love and prayers during this time. Ruv Roo all-- Roxie." Roxie would look over her dad just three days later.
An iconic victory
Friday afternoon on the heels of this tragedy, Batch finally received word he would start against the Baltimore Ravens on their turf. At that point he remembers thinking, "Hopefully this would be a way to get the ball rolling to put us and keep us in playoff contention." With a Steelers loss, the Ravens would clinch the division. He continued, "It was also a chance to do something that hadn't been done: beat Baltimore in Baltimore without Ben. That was the challenge, but I knew at the same time I had to do whatever I could. I was willing to do everything I could to get that victory."
Batch did lead the team to victory in an emotional and dramatic come-from-behind win, which included going eight for eight on his final throws and a clutch seven-yard touchdown pass to Heath Miller to tie the game. With a little over six minutes left in the game, Batch started a drive from the Steelers 15-yard line. With completions to Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, along with a roughing the passer penalty called on Ravens' Paul Kruger, Batch set the Steelers up for a successful 41-yard field goal.
Batch watched the kick from the sidelines. When it was clear the kick would be good, he became a hero to his teammates and fans. Embracing Roethlisberger, Batch knew this was likely his last game, and he also knew he had made good on his promise to redeem the upsetting loss to Cleveland and do everything in his power to beat their division rivals in enemy territory.
A dream fulfilled... thanks to the Lions
That season marked the end of Batch's career, the birth of which was in 2002. Cut from the Lions at the dawn of the Matt Millen era (a dawn that heralded darkness instead of light, as it would happen), Batch was fulfilling a childhood dream when he signed with the Steelers.
Initially, Batch was starstruck. "I was such a fan of the organization-- I still am," he told me. "When I first got here, I was sitting in a room realizing I was being coached by Bill Cowher and I was, like, ‘Wow, this really is a dream come true.'"
He wasn't just struck by Cowher. His locker-mate ended up being Jerome Bettis. "I'm there with Jerome and I'm thinking, ‘Man, I watched this guy in college.' I was just standing there trying not to act like too much of fan."
He couldn't keep up the act for too long. In short order, he approached Bettis asking for an autograph. "I played it cool," he recalled. Batch decided to go with the ultra-suave, "Yo, I need an autograph." Batch had a sense of urgency when it came to procuring a Bettis autograph, though, which Bettis picked up on. Batch had to explain that he had made a big mistake when he was with the Lions: "I had to tell Jerome that when I was with the Lions I never did get a Barry Sanders autograph when we played together. I thought I was going to play with him a long time too and he retired." With that, Bettis laughed, and Batch got his autograph.
He also shared a humorous anecdote about the aftermath of the Steelers 2005 21-10 Super Bowl victory against the Seahawks, which included Antwaan Randle El's 43-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward in the last quarter. "There were six players from the Steelers Super Bowl XL championship team who had all played with the Lions at the same time," he began. "After the game, we all took a picture, signed it, sent it up to Matt (Millen) and said, ‘Thank you.' If it hadn't been for him cutting us, we wouldn't have been celebrating a Super Bowl."
A veteran team and then transition
As a veteran squad, the team was very cohesive, and Cowher was their ideal leader. "Cowher did a great job being able to manage all the egos. He taught me a lot about leadership," he said.
Eventually the Cowher era came to an end. Batch described the mood when the organization announced the new head coach would be Mike Tomlin. "There was tension between a lot of people. Some wanted the Steelers to hire from within," he explained. "But they brought in a guy who had nothing to do with the organization." At the time Batch reasoned, "You know what, I decided that if the Rooneys picked him, he's the right guy."
He learned a lot from Cowher, but Tomlin also proved to be a valuable role model. "It was cool to watch a young Tomlin come into the organization and establish his own identity. You could see why the Rooneys hired him. He was able to communicate exactly what he wanted and he got the best out of the team. I'm big on leadership traits and it was inspirational to see a veteran guy exit the league and new guy step in."
Tomlin proved himself from his first meeting with the team. "He walked in and had command over the room," recalled Batch. "The guys were like, ‘This is our guy. Let's ride.' There was immediate buy-in." Batch explained to me that this Tomlin's leadership and communication skills are unique even at the professional level. Not all coaches share those traits.
I asked Batch about his take on the Steelers recent transitions. He said, "Change is inevitable." He recalled the beginning of a big shift in Steelers personnel: "After we lost that Denver game (in 2012), I knew that there was going to be a changing of the guard. When that happened, I remember walking into the locker room and thinking, ‘This is it with this team.'"
Sure enough, the dismantling of the team started with James Farrior and Hines Ward. He said, "More and more people left. You started seeing the older guys go. I'd look around the room and think, ‘Man, we don't have many two-championship team players around any more.'"
Part of the transition has involved the passing of the defensive coordinator torch from Dick LeBeau to Keith Butler, about which Batch said, "(Dick LeBeau) was a veteran guy. Everyone loves him. From a timing standpoint, the change had to happen because the team did not want to lose Keith Butler. He had been waiting a long time. Six years."
Gifts given and received
Batch praised the organization for not allowing the team to have a down year despite the turnover. "They did a good job replacing a lot of those guys," he said. "But when you replace them you need some of those younger guys to step up in leadership positions. It's too early in the offseason to know what is going to happen." When I asked Batch what he thought his biggest gift and contribution to the Steelers organization was, he did not hesitate in saying "Mentorship." He knows the importance of veterans leading the way for younger players, and that was his biggest strength as a Steeler.
One of the Steelers biggest gift to Batch was the camaraderie. From the Rooneys, whom Batch holds in the highest regard, to his teammates, there were very powerful relationships within the organization. Batch said, "The team was so close. The laughs, the meetings, the sweat, the tears, all the hard work that put you in. I cherish those relationships and memories."
Steelers fans cherish memories of Charlie Batch from his steady presence throughout his career to his improbably victory in Baltimore. And now, through his foundation, he is providing a framework in which the children he serves can forge their own positive memories and relationships. The career that fans recall with such joy and emotion is the same career that allowed Batch to fulfill his destiny and purpose: to make a difference.
Also in this series:
For more information on Charlie Batch and his foundation, please visit: