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Black Quarterbacks

Charlie Batch executed the perfect backup plan

After Lions cut him, Batch landed with his hometown Steelers for more than a decade

As he ran onto the field with his Pittsburgh Steelers for Super Bowl XL in Detroit, Charlie Batch could not have thought of a more perfect setting. Batch was making his Super Bowl debut for the Steelers — his hometown team — playing in the city where he made his NFL debut with the Lions.

A team that eventually cut him.

“That moment for me,” Batch remembered of the 21-10 win over Seattle in 2006, the first of three Super Bowl appearances, “felt great.”

For a 15-year player who was never a full-time starter after his fourth season, Batch looks back at his NFL career with almost complete fulfillment.

He has two Super Bowl rings (contributing as a key fill-in starter in each of those two seasons). He played 11 years with his hometown team. And his philanthropy during his years in Pittsburgh made an impact on local youth while he played (and continues to do so postcareer).

“I wear my years in Pittsburgh with pride,” Batch said.

Batch grew up in Homestead, Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh suburb where young boys get a serving of football with their Similac. “It was either you played football or you watched everybody else playing,” Batch said. “I wanted to play. Especially growing up in Steeler country.”

Batch was the kid with the strongest arm, so he always played quarterback, starting with the Steel Valley Midget Association and continuing through Steel Valley High School, where he helped the team to the Class AA state semifinals.

A local star, Batch wanted to play at Pitt. The Panthers showed only lukewarm interest, and the foot-dragging led Batch to commit to Eastern Michigan.

“The only regret I have is not being able to hand the ball off to Curtis Martin had I gone to Pitt,” Batch said. “But going to Eastern Michigan allowed me to grow.”

Batch played mainly as a back as a freshman on an Eastern Michigan team that went 5-6. And when Rick Rasnick took over as coach the following season, it was suggested that Batch switch from quarterback to defensive back.

That suggestion was met with strong resistance.

“I said ‘Woo, no, that’s not gonna happen,’ ” Batch recalled telling the coaches. “First of all, I didn’t have the speed to play defensive back. And second, it was unfair to not even allow me to play quarterback before making that decision. I told them to get a perspective of me playing that position before you think about making a move.”

With Batch leading the way the Eagles finished 6-5, ending five straight losing seasons. And what better proof to showing the coaches his ability to leading the Eagles to a scoring average of 33 points a game, which ranked 14th of 108 Division I teams (the previous season the Eagles ranked 66th in points per game with a 22.5 average).

Batch missed most of the next season (1996) after suffering a fractured ankle in the second game against Wisconsin. In his final collegiate season, he threw for 3,280 yards and 23 touchdowns, leaving the school with 17 passing records.

Even though few fans saw him play — this was long before the Mid-American Conference inked a national television deal — Batch was still the third-ranked quarterback behind Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf entering the 1998 draft. The Lions selected Batch in the second round.

Batch entered training camp as the team’s third-string quarterback, and eventually stepping into the starting role after the Lions, a 9-7 team the year before, opened the 1998 season with two straight losses. Two days after that second loss Batch got an unexpected call from head coach Bobby Ross. “We’re making a change,” Ross told him, “You’re our starter.”

The Lions lost to the Minnesota Vikings in Batch’s first start, dropping to 0-3, and the entire city was hitting the panic button.

Ross had his rookie’s back, telling reporters “there ain’t no quarterback controversy in this program.”

That helped put Batch at ease.

“Having that endorsement coming out of that game was phenomenal,” Batch said. “And having the chance to prepare while watching my own tape was crucial.”

The bright spot in earning a starting spot early in his rookie year: Batch got a chance to line up with the great Barry Sanders.

Batch envisioned teaming with Sanders for many years. So he was just as shocked as everyone else when the Hall of Fame running back retired at the end of the 1998 season.

“He was the best in the league, and he easily had five years left,” Batch said. “At the time you wondered why he would do that, and when you hear his explanation you understand why. Football wasn’t the most important thing in his life. And football shouldn’t be.”

Batch was Detroit’s main starter for the first four years of his career, but each of his last three seasons were cut short by injury. In the first season without Sanders in 1999, the Lions finished 8-8 and earned a playoff spot that surpassed everyone’s expectations. But Batch re-injured his fractured right thumb in the last game of the regular season (he first injured it in Detroit’s eighth game) and missed the wild-card playoff game against Washington.

“There hadn’t been a lot of success in that organization, and making the playoffs was a big deal,” Batch said. “Getting to the playoffs was a big deal, and not being able to play was tough, and I was thinking ‘we have to do this again next year.’ ”

It would be another 12 years before the Lions played another playoff game, in 2012. By that time Batch was long gone, having been released by new general manager Matt Millen following a 2001 season in which Batch was replaced as the starter after the team opened the season with seven straight losses.

“We were 9-7 when Matt Millen took over and all we had to do was smooth out some rough edges, and we’d be OK,” Batch said. “But he comes in and makes massive changes. It was frustrating to find out that I wasn’t the quarterback of choice.”

Looking back on his four years in Detroit, Batch has no regrets.

“I was hurt quite a few times there, so I understand the business side of it and that I was released because of my health and not because of my ability,” Batch said. “I moved on, never doubting my ability.”

When no starting opportunities surfaced, Batch signed a one-year deal with the Steelers, returning to Western Pennsylvania as a backup with his hometown team.

One year turned to two years.

And two years turned into 11 as Batch finished his career with the Steelers, where he played a backup role for more than a decade.

“Sure, I wanted to be a starter somewhere, but each year my contract came up, there were no opportunities,” Batch said. “The Steelers kept offering me more years, and I knew what I was getting into when I signed. Did I want to play? Sure, but the timing was never right.”

If you’re going to be a backup, you might as well play that role with a winner. The Steelers won two Super Bowls (in three trips) during Batch’s 11 years.

The difference: the culture.

“In Detroit, the owner was running Ford, so you never saw him and football was secondary,” Batch said. “In Pittsburgh, football was the main business and you always saw the Rooney family around.”

Early in his years with the Steelers, Batch assumed he’d get a shot to be a starter. But that changed when the team drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

“When Ben came in, I knew I was going to make it a working relationship and teach him everything I knew,” Batch said. “We were both MAC guys [Roethlisberger went to Miami Ohio], so he knew he wasn’t walking into a hostile environment. We became good friends, and continue to be good friends to this day.”

That’s because even after Batch retired after the 2012 season, the two see each other often. Batch is a Steelers analyst for KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, and the offices for his charity, Best of the Batch Foundation, is about 10 minutes from the Steelers practice facility.

The foundation, which Batch started when he entered the league, was envisioned after his 17-year-old sister was murdered in a drive-by shooting while Batch was in college. Batch has won several community service awards for his work with the foundation, which provides opportunities for youth and serves 3,800 kids each year in 13 counties in Pennsylvania.

Does Batch, the only Pittsburgh native to win two Super Bowls with the Steelers, look back on his 15-year career with any regrets?

“I wouldn’t change a thing,” Batch said. “God had his plan for me. And I while I was never the guy in Pittsburgh, I wear my time with the organization with pride.”

Liner Notes

The Undefeated will profile 30 black quarterbacks leading up to the 2018 Super Bowl, which marks 30 years since Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win the big game.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.