There were plenty of reasons to be excited by the Pittsburgh Steelers 2011 NFL Draft. In the first round, the Steelers drafted Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward with the No. 31 overall pick. Heyward may not be the flashiest of players, but he fits perfectly into Dick LeBeau and John Mitchell's coaching philosophies, and he just so happens to be one of the more interesting and high-character guys to join the NFL this year.
The case has been made that Steelers fans should be excited about Curtis Brown, the cornerback out of Texas taken in the third round. Cortez Allen may develop into a solid CB himself now that he's free from all the other non-football obligations he dutifully tended to while at The Citadel. In the fifth round, the Steelers found a potential sleeper in Chris Carter, a pass-rushing DE/OLB from Fresno State cut very much from the same cloth physically as 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison. And last but not least, the Steelers added Marcus Gilbert and Keith Williams in the second and sixth rounds, respectively. They hail from big-name schools (Florida and Nebraska), and both should work their way into Sean Kugler's starting lineup along the OL. In Gilbert's case, that could happen as early as 2011 provided he were to have a chance to compete for a starting spot at guard.
Then there's Baron Batch, the seventh and final selection by Kevin Colbert in this year's three-day draft extravaganza. I will pat myself on the back and say that I was ahead of the pack in terms of expressing notable excitement about drafting the former Texas Tech star. Despite hearing on multiple occasions from my best buddy - a Red Raiders alum - that Batch was an interesting dude, I'll admit that my initial excitement about the pick stemmed more from me believing he might contribute for the Steelers than it did from him being such a remarkably well-rounded guy who was impossible to dislike.
We'll get back to Batch's unique personality and extraordinary extracurricular pursuits, but a quick word about why I felt Batch could in fact earn a helmet in 2011. Not to oversimplify things, but really it comes down to whether or not veteran third-down back Mewelde Moore re-signs with the Steelers once free agency re-opens. Moore is reliable, trustworthy and still not so old where he isn't capable of taking advantage of lackluster defense. But Steelers fans have noticed that Moore has lost a half-step (at least) since joining the Steelers in 2007, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the Steelers' front office is taking a strong look at going in a different direction with their third-down back - to get younger, more explosive, and to save money.
Money will be a key issue here. This might be Moore's last payday in the National Football League. He's a wonderful man, a great community guy with a committed foundation that does a lot of good. I wouldn't blame him one bit if he tried to maximize his earning power in what could be his final few years in professional football. Then again, you just never know what the dynamics of the open market will be when the labor impasse is resolved. There's also the fact that running backs just aren't as highly-coveted as they were even just five years ago as teams opt instead to deploy a two-back rushing attack and not invest too heavily in any one player.
Assuming Moore is not with the Steelers next season, Batch has a great shot at not only avoiding being cut, but actually suiting up on gamedays and contributing to Bruce Arians' offense. Batch is a competent receiving threat thanks to playing three years in Mike Leach's wide-open offensive system. The Odessa, Texas native caught 102 passes as a sophomore and junior before seeing that total drop to 32 last season after the more conservative Tommy Tubberville took over Leach's duties.
I won't even really mention Batch's running prowess. Why? Well, the Steelers are set for now with Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman set to handle the lion's share of the rushing attempts. Were Batch to make the team, he might get the processional draw play called for him on third-and-long, or even the surprise carry during a two-minute drill before the half. But really, if he's going to contribute to the Steelers, it will be as a pass-catching threat on third down, and perhaps more importantly, as the last line of defense blocking for Ben Roethlisberger on obvious passing situations. I've seen Batch play at least 20 times in college and I know he's capable of handling that assignment. A lot of it is just having good anticipation, a high football IQ, and fearlessness. He's got all three of those attributes in spades, and after some intensive work as a paid professional, I imagine his football instincts and intelligence will only improve.
Quite simply, Batch is hard not to like. He's part badass football player, part intensely creative and talented multimedia storyteller, part humanitarian, and part easygoing and funny dude. In other words, he's different from so many of the gridiron greats that we cheer for and want to feel a connection to. Sadly, if Batch doesn't stick with the Steelers for any extended period of time, his truly special character will never be fully appreciated by those who were just getting to know him. Batch doesn't need to worry about that, though. Whether he winds up with the Steelers, a different NFL team, or out of football entirely within the next 24 months, he's going to live a rich and rewarding life of participative self-expression, selfless acts of kindness, travel, and meaningful relationships.
Batch has been a popular guest in the Pittsburgh area since being drafted two weekends ago, but on Monday I was pleased to stumble across a long spot with him on KGOW, a Houston station much closer to his native West Texas. I thought I would transcribe a large portion of it for those of you without access to audio. For those encountering his story for the first time, I suggest you check out Batch's blog. Be sure to read his two-part entry about his trip to Haiti this past in which he served as a photojournalist and helping hand to those and need (Part 1 ; Part 2). I mention that because I opted not to transcribe the part of the interview that touched upon that trip, as it's been a regular topic of conversation between Batch and radio hosts this past two weeks.
Anyway, here you go. Who knows how long the relationship between Batch and the Steelers will last, but I nonetheless encourage fans of football and sports in general to keep an eye on this young man for years to come.
On whether he hoped to be drafted or have had the ability to have more choices as an undrafted free agent rookie:
"My goal was to get drafted, and I was confident that I would land on the team that was the right fit for me. So when Pittsburgh picked me, that was a team that flew me in for a visit and that's really where I wanted to be. I saw they had their pick coming up, and at that point, I kind of quit tracking it as much, I put my phone down. But I was confident God was going to put me in the right situation, the right place, whether it was drafted or undrafted. So it worked out perfect. I went to the team that I was excited about going to and playing for, and the team I really wanted to play for and it worked out."
On what excites him most about joining the Steelers:
"I mean, a lot of things. As far as Pittsburgh and getting to play for the Steelers, it's just an awesome organization with awesome coaches and people. And I love just the demeanor that the team has - just blue-collar, hard-nosed, humble and just works hard. And those are all the characteristics that I value highly myself and I feel I'm going to fit in well with them. As far as off the field, I'm excited about having a new fan base and having just that aspect of everything broaden and getting to use my platform to affect a whole new demographic of people and I'm just excited about it."
On playing for two very different but successful coaches at Texas Tech -- Mike Leach and Tommy Tubberville:
"Both of those guys are amazing coaches, and it's kind of funny because I've had two separate head coaches and three different running backs coaches. A lot of people respond differently to a coaching change, but my whole thing was I'm going to try to learn as much as I can from each person and soak it in. And I was able to do that. From each coach I was able to learn a lot of different things and it's really helped me out now just as far as putting it all into my game on the field, but just a lot of other things off the field from those guys. It's been great. Coach Leach did a lot for me - he was the coach who recruited me and gave me a scholarship and an opportunity to play. And I'll always be thankful for that because it's been a great experience. And then Coach Tubberville came in and I got to kind of learn from his and his staff, and it's really prepared and made me well-rounded for this next step I'm about to take."
On the outlet football provided him to vent frustrations growing up, and then how he learned to branch out with his interests as he got a bit older:
"It was a big part of me growing up as a man. In some ways football kind of hindered me from that until I came to the realization that football isn't everything. But growing up, there was so much that was out of my control, and to this day I'm kind of a control freak and like to be in control of things. But as far as football went, I felt like I was in control on the field, in control of my actions - how hard I played, how hard I hit somebody - I could control all those things, it was all under my control. So I really felt comfortable when I was out on the field outside of anywhere else when I was just in my regular life where I didn't have control over anything really and I was just relying on other people and all these other things going on. And when I was on the field I felt the most comfortable until I realized that can be taken from you in an instant. Once that happened, I realized that it's awesome to be able to control what you do on the field, but ultimately it can end at any time. So that's when I realized and really started being able to enjoy the game and just go out and play and go, 'I'm going to have fun and enjoy it while it lasts because it's going to end eventually.'
And that's why I've really gotten to the point where I do so much off-the-field stuff, because eventually I don't want to just be a football player. That's my biggest fear is just that when I'm done playing that people will just say, 'Yeah, he was a good football player.' Because there's tons of good football players. Someone else is going to play at Texas Tech and wear No. 25, and maybe play running back and break all the records that I set and pass me up, and they're going to forget about me and I'm going to be in the history books. But what I do off the field, and what I say and how I treat people, that extends way past my football career and even my life in general. And when you think about that, it's a really cool thing to use the platform that you have at the moment to branch out in the future - a future that's kind of unforeseeable from where I'm at right now. I know it's kind of forever-reaching if you just stay humble and open yourself up to helping other people."
On his philosophy that it's okay to just focus on helping one person at a time:
"Yeah, it's so funny, I'm sitting next to my brother right now and he asked me about that the other day and I was trying to get that point across to him. I said, 'Look, one person is all you need to help.' You never know what that one person is going to do. For example, all the people that drove out and came to my trailer house all the time and checked on me and cared for me and just devoted their time to me and my brothers, in every way I'm a fruit of their labor, and everything I do is a fruit of their labor just because they invested the time and took the time to help me. And that's what I really want to get across to people -- everybody can't do everything, but everybody can do something. One person is enough and you never know what that one person is going to do."
On all the attention his blog has been receiving, and where that interest started:
"I would have never in a million years thought that something as simple as starting a blog would have turned into what it has. Because lately it's been like, almost viral to the sense that I get on there and I'll check how many hits I have, and there will be times in a day where there will be like 30,000 or some crazy number, and I'm just like, 'Wow, that many people are just going to look at what I have to say.' First of all, it just humbles me that I'm able to use something that I originally wasn't good at, and second of all I just get excited about it for what's to come. Eventually I want to be able to say I failed an English class and wrote a book that is a New York Times bestseller. I want to be able to say that, and I think it's really cool and it's something I going to continue to do, and I just want to see where it takes me."
Listen to Batch's interview with Sean Pendergast on KGOW in Houston.