Baron Batch: My Story From 30,000 Feet
Steelers rookie running back Baron Batch shares his inspirational story of poverty, pain and perseverance.
Editor’s Note: The following article has been contributed by Baron Batch, the Steelers’ seventh-round pick in the 2011 Draft. In addition to being a talented running back, Batch is a published writer and photographer. In January, he traveled to Haiti to help the country’s rebuilding efforts. This is his story, in his words, raw and unedited, accompanied by his own original photography.
This column isn’t directed for reader satisfaction—as strange as that sounds. I guess this column is more like personal therapy for me. Rarely do I ever know what I am going to write about before I write it. Typically, something happens during the week and bingo, I then know exactly what I need to write about, and this week has been no different. I am writing this entire column in response to an email I just read. This is what the email said:
Thank you for taking the time to read this email. I have a few questions and am asking for advice. How have you become so successful? How have you achieved what you have? I envy you, but you are also my hero. My family doesn’t have much. I don’t have the perfect life and the talents or skills that you have. I feel like the world is against me sometimes. My parents are divorced and my mom is sick. I have brothers and a sister that I have to take care of like I am a parent. I don’t think it’s fair. I feel like I will rot in the town that I’m in. I feel like there is no way out. I feel like my life isn’t that important. Can you please email me back because that would be so cool! I would like to hear any advice that you could give. Thanks for reading this.
Usually, I do all my writing from the comfy red couch that sits in the corner of Sugar Browns, my favorite coffee shop, but after reading that email, this column is written from a somewhat different location. My fingers keep slipping off of the screen of my iPhone because they are drenched with nervous sweat. I genuinely hate to fly, and hate might be an understatement. It’s ironic that I am about to tell all of you a story during takeoff and through the course of a flight. I figure maybe writing will take my mind off of the fact I’m terrified, and yes, I know that all electronic devices are suppose to be turned off, but I refuse to believe having a phone on makes a difference. Too bad I’m not flying Southwest; I heard that they installed sunroofs in their planes as of two weeks ago, and will even leave it open during the flight! OK, I probably shouldn’t have made that joke, because I just freaked myself out.
The story I’m about to disclose to you is hard for me to tell because I’ve never really told anyone more than bits and pieces. Few people know this story in its entirety. This is a story that consists of more turbulence and bumps than this flight out of Lubbock that is being tossed helplessly by the west Texas wind. This is a story that I have trouble telling, and honestly really don’t like to. However, after reading that email, I realized this is a story that many young people probably need to hear. This story is one that is close to my heart simply because it is my own. I guess one reason I have avoided this story for so long is because I have never wanted people to pity me. I guess its about time to explain some things. Now that the plane has reached its cruising altitude, let’s begin.
I don’t like to think about my childhood very much. There is a lot I can’t remember. My memory is like a puzzle with missing pieces. I guess a psychologist would say I have suppressed memories or something like that, which could be true. Maybe this column will be therapy for me. I’ve never really tried writing all my memories down until now. So let’s start from the beginning.
I was born in Odessa, Texas, on December 21, 1987. My mom always told me I was her early Christmas present. Joyce Batch was beautiful and would always sing, she told me she loved me every opportunity she could. She would always say, "Baron, you have to have faith." At the time I had no idea what that meant, but looking back, she spoke those words into my soul. I distinctly remember that. I grew up in a large family, and we lived outside of town, and when I say outside of town, I mean 30 miles south of town between Midland and Odessa in the middle of nowhere off of county road 1787. The land we lived on was covered in mesquite trees and cactus. I was a typical boy who would collect bugs—and who knows what else—in jars. I grew up with three brothers and a sister. In chronological order from oldest to youngest this is how it goes: Bridgette, Brian, Baron, Brandon and Bryson. Yes I am the middle child, and, yes, all of our names start with the letter B.
A photograph from Baron’s recent trip to Haiti.
I learned several things being the middle child growing up. Mainly, I learned to fight. I liked it and was good at it. Of course, you can’t enjoy fighting without getting beat up a few times. I never thought there was a fight I wouldn’t win. I guess in many ways that made me who I am and is still with me. I would describe myself as a very temperamental child, and my mom was the only person that could calm me down once my temper ran away with me attached to it.
My family lived in a small three-bedroom trailer house. We had what we needed to survive but not much in addition to that. The word "poor" doesn’t suffice. My mom loved to garden; I remember she was always outside in the garden, and I loved to be out there with her. Looking back, I now realize that the reason my mom gardened so much was not only as a hobby, but to simply provide food for us. I can recall the day that I realized that my family was poor. I was in third grade and was invited to a friend’s birthday party at his house. I remember pulling up to his house and looking at it in awe thinking, “My house looks nothing like that.”
After that, I was always embarrassed to have friends over to my home because I didn’t want them to see how my family lived. I guess I was embarrassed of my family in a way. I would let my fists talk for me when other kids would make fun of my clothes, shoes or the awful haircuts that my older brother Brian would give me that I thought were so legit at the time. I spent the majority of my childhood sleeping on the floor in front of a space heater. Looking back, I realize how dangerous that probably was, but when you are cold, safety doesn’t matter much.
Although my family was poor, my siblings and I never lacked creativity. We always came up with new games—most of which were extremely dangerous. These games (or looking back now) "feats of danger," varied from playing tag on the roof of the house, throwing rocks at each other or making intense rope swings from the highest possible thing we could find. We had a steel gate that was painted white that sat at the end of the dirt road that led up to our trailer house. I remember there was always a crazy rope swing attached to it. Luckily, none of us were killed.
My dad had a job that required him to travel for weeks at a time, and this left my siblings and I at home with my mom. I can only imagine how hard it was for my mom to keep track of all of us! Thankfully, my aunt and uncle would make frequent visits by the house to check on us and bring us food or anything else we needed.
Eventually, my dad met another woman during one of his trips away and left my mom. Shortly after, my mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Years passed, and my parents fought. While my mom’s disease progressed, my dad commuted back and forth between his two lives.
Baron photographs his father fishing in New Orleans. The pair reconciled recently.
Mom’s disease worsened, and she lost basic skills like the use of her hands and, eventually, the ability to walk, which confined her to a wheelchair. My siblings and I took on increased responsibility. We had to take care of each other and Mom. We were forced to accept roles that my dad wasn’t around to do and my mom was unable to do. We learned to cook, do laundry, and we even woke ourselves up for school and caught the bus in the mornings. Time passed, and eventually, mom had to go and live in a nursing home in Crane, Texas, away from my siblings and I. I went from seeing my mom every day and hearing her sing, to seeing her once every few weeks. It was strange to see every other kid’s parents at their school functions knowing that mine could never be there. I remember lying to my friends when they asked why my parents were never present. It was hard for me to understand. I was constantly angry at my situation. I didn’t think it was fair. My dad was still away on work quite often and busy juggling two lives, which left my siblings and I completely home alone to raise ourselves.
My uncle still tells me how he was tempted every day to call Child Protective Services to come get us. I’ll never forget his response when I asked him why he decided not to.
“Baron, I was close to calling them to go get you kids because I worried about your safety," he said. "However, one night I had a dream. In my dream, I saw two angels with swords. They were gigantic. About 60 feet tall. They were guarding the white gate that sat at the beginning of the dirt road that led up to the trailer house. They said that they would protect you kids from anything or anyone, but they couldn’t stop you from hurting each other.”
The first time he told me that story, I was 16 and rolled my eyes laughing to myself thinking, Yeah, OK. Now, looking back, I can almost see for myself what he described, and it all makes sense.
Love in Haiti, January 2011.
Mom’s health began to decrease drastically. She regularly began to have complications that required her to be hospitalized off and on.
On April 13, 2003, my mom was admitted to Medical Center Hospital. I remember arriving at the hospital and having a gut feeling that she wouldn’t "bounce back" like she did many times before. That afternoon, Joyce Ann Batch went to be with Jesus. At the time, I didn’t see it like that. At the time, I felt like my mom had been stolen from me. I didn’t get to say goodbye because I got there too late. My uncle told me I needed to go see her for closure, but I remember being too scared to. I didn’t want to see her. I remember my uncle tried to hug me, and I pushed him away and ran. The hospital hallway was long and I had no idea where I was running to, all I knew was that I wanted to get away. I felt if I ran far enough maybe everything would go away. It didn’t.
Mom’s death affected all of my siblings differently. For me, I became angrier than I already was, and it didn’t help that the only person that could calm me was gone. At the funeral service, I remember feeling anger instead of grief.
Time passed, and my anger grew. I remember my dad telling me he was going to marry the woman whom he left my mother for. I never had raised my voice to my father, but that night, I yelled at him. He wanted my siblings and I to move to another city with him, but I refused. I didn’t want to leave the only stable thing that I still had—my friends. At the time, I had been living with my best friend when football season would come around because that was the only way I could get back and forth to practice on a consistent basis. Instead of moving away from Midland, they took me in. They will never understand how grateful I still am.
None of my siblings ended up moving away. We all had a different family that we went to stay with. Even though we were split up, we still saw each other often, and I was thankful for that.
I continued to excel in football throughout high school. Anger still consumed me, and I would have frequent outbursts at people that didn’t deserve it. If you were one of those people, please accept my apology.
Football was the only thing that made me feel important and secure because I felt like I was in control when I was on the field. I fell in love with the game because of that feeling. It filled the void that my mom’s death left. It also helped to have a position coach that served as a father figure to me, and still does.
Eventually, I began to get scholarship offers my junior year of high school. I decided to stay close to home and attend Texas Tech University. Upon arriving on campus, I quickly impressed the coaches and earned playing time during my true freshman year. My anger hadn’t gone anywhere; I actually felt like it helped me play better at times. The only important, constant or stable thing to me at that time was football.
On October 18, 2006, after playing in seven games as a true freshman, I broke my ankle and had surgery. I ended up getting a very serious bone infection after my operation. Suddenly, my season-ending injury turned into a potential career-ending injury and, possibly, a life threatening situation. I remember having a long-term I.V. called a central line put into my chest and having to run I.V. antibiotics twice a day for two hours for weeks. I didn’t think I would ever play a snap of football again. I remember being too sick to fly with the team to the bowl game that year, so I went to Odessa to stay with my aunt and uncle. One afternoon while I was laying on the couch during a two hour antibiotic session, I looked up to my uncle and said, “There is a good chance that I will never play football again.” And he looked and me and said, “Yeah, there is a good chance of that, but it will be OK. Have faith.” That was the moment that I let go of all my anger I had been carrying.
OK, I’m going to stop the story there.
The rest of the story after that point is what mostly everyone already knows. It is well documented. I guess everything after that point is what you could call my "comeback story" from my injury. But, in all reality, there was no real comeback. My injury simply closed a chapter on a life that most people never knew existed.
OK, the plane is starting to shake again, and I think we are about to land.
“We have now reached our destination of Pittsburgh. The current temperature is 42 degrees."
That was the pilot! Whew, I’m back on the ground.
Tomorrow the poor, angry kid with the crazy childhood and horrible haircuts will meet with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The NFL draft is in three weeks. Throughout the past month, several NFL organizations have flown me in for interviews, and it is all very surreal. After looking back on my childhood, I realize how fortunate I am and whether I play a down in the NFL or not, I am proud to say that I am very much OK without football. Funny thing is, as much as I hated my childhood and thought it was unfair, I wouldn’t change one single event. I actually appreciate my childhood now more than ever.
To the young man that wrote me that email that sparked this entire story: You speak for a demographic of young people that are struggling and hurting just like I was, and this is what I have to tell you …
You don’t have to become a victim to your situation. You can overcome it. Problems don’t exist, only obstacles, so hurdle them. This is what makes you strong. You will fall, and when you do, get up. Because the world is still turning. Don’t lay on the ground because very few sincere hands will be extended. However, once a sincere and trusted hand is offered, quickly grab it, and never let go because you can’t do it on your own. When you overcome your situation, never be ashamed to talk about it like I have been until now, but never use it as an excuse or crutch. Others need to hear that there is hope for people like us. I know what you are going through. Have faith. Everything will be OK. I’m flattered that I’m your hero, but please understand this one thing. I’m not just "kind of like you."
I am you.
I thought I’d share this, too. Its one of the few things that goes everywhere I go. Never forget what you come from.
For more of Baron Batch’s writing, visit his blog at baronbatch.blogspot.com