Travels With Charlie
The Good Guys – the Quarterbacks, part 2.
(1). Charlie Batch & Ben Roethlisberger.
There is nothing better than a redemption story. Whether fact or fiction, a tale of redemption often features a wise man, the voice of experience, who guides the wayward one down the road towards salvation. Such is the saga of Big Ben’s travels with Charlie.
Ben Roethlisberger came to the Pittsburgh Steelers as their first round draft choice in 2004. In his rookie season, he was the third quarterback behind Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch. Due to injuries, his chance to start came early, in just his second game. He has been the starter ever since.
Benny went 14-0 through the regular season and playoffs, finally losing to the eventual Super Bowl winning Pats in the AFC title game.
The Steelers, lead by Ben, won the Super Bowl the following year, defeating Seahawks. Since this fairy tale start, he’s been to two more Super Bowls, winning a second Lombardi trophy in SB XLIII.
Steeler Nation is unanimous on precious few topics. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say Steeler Nation knows BB is a great QB. Yes, KNOWS and yes, GREAT. Can you hear me Simms, Al, Boomer, Terry, JB, Collingsworth? Collingsworth, pay attention! GREAT. I swear, when the TV analysts discuss top QBs, they find “Roethlisberger” impossible to pronounce.
But we all know his greatness. If you need any help, check Wikipedia for the NFL records held by Ben. I checked and I was impressed! Even Steeler fans can hypnotized by the constant drone of effusive praise of Brady, Peyton, Rodgers and Brees.
Benny’s mastery is evident. We’ve watched him make all the throws, hundreds of them. End zone corner to Santonio. Back shoulder to AB on the sideline. Through a small window across the middle to Hines. The bomb to Bryant (or that other dude, hiding out in Minnesota).
When it’s not there or the protection breaks down or is nonexistent a la 2008-2013, nobody plays backyard football like Benny (no, not even Aaron Rodgers). Ben has conjured more amazing escapes than Houdini.
Sucess came quickly on the field for Big Ben, though matters were less than rosy in the locker room and away from football. Number 7 struggled establishing himself as a leader on a team with many battle-tested veterans. While his youth and inexperience were problematic, his cockiness proved divisive. An illuminating article by Dan Pompei, revealed that Ben admits he was not a good teammate in his early years.
“There are some guys who had animosity towards me, and probably rightfully so,” Roethlisberger said. “I probably could have helped that by being a humble guy who was the best teammate I could be.”
Ben’s problems weren’t limited to his leadership skills. There were questions about his dedication to the team and to his game. According to a number of sources, including a report by ESPN, Joey Porter called him out, observing that Ben was the last man in and the first one out of the locker room. He openly challenged Ben to be a better leader. Ben was sheepishly silent.
In the off-season after Super Bowl XL, Ben was involved in a serious motorcycle crash. He was not wearing a helmet. While he recovered before the 2006 season, the criticism of BB for his recklessness was withering.
Reports of Ben’s boorish exploits grew and became common knowledge. In 2009, a Lake Tahoe woman filed a lawsuit alleging Ben sexually assaulted her. The case was settled without disclosure as to whether any money was paid. In 2010, a woman alleged Ben raped her in a Milledgeville, GA bar. Although the DA declined to file charges, the incident set off a firestorm throughout Steeler Nation. Ben was suspended for six (later reduced to four) games by Roger Goodell.
At this point, many demanded that the Rooneys to trade Ben. Terry Bradshaw said if he owned the team, Ben would be gone. I wanted him gone too. I had read the official accounts of the incident. While I concluded Ben’s actions were likely not criminal, they were heinous. I had no interest in cheering for Ben. In my view, he proved himself to be a boorish, intemperate oaf.
Thank God for the Rooneys and Charlie Batch. The Rooneys decided to keep Roethlisberger. A New York Times article quoted Art Rooney II:
I think our fans care deeply about what happens with the Pittsburgh Steelers. My hope is we get to the point where Ben is able to demonstrate to them that he’s serious about it, that he wants to start a new chapter in his life, which is what he’s told me. If he’s able to do that and convince fans that he understands he’s made mistakes, I think fans will eventually accept it. But it’s going to take time.
I thought it was all bull. I had had enough of Big Ben and Milledgeville was the last straw. I stayed loyal the team and rooted for Ben on the field, but I did not like him. Not at all.
What many of us did not know, or believe, was that Ben could and would change.
In Pompei’s article, Charlie Batch relates that, in the midst of the celebration and confetti after beating Arizona in SB XLIII, Ben looked for him:
When he found him in the chaos, they shared a long embrace, and Roethlisberger thanked Batch for a night they shared the previous March. . .
On that night, Roethlisberger called Batch and asked if he could go out for a beer. They met at Quaker Steak & Lube in Pittsburgh and sat at a table in the corner where they wouldn’t be disturbed. He asked Batch how he could become a better leader and teammate. Three hours later, Batch had told him what he learned about relationships in his eight NFL seasons.
Thus, the seeds of Ben’s redemption were sown, even before he hit rock bottom at Milledgeville. Growth as a human being is rarely linear.
Pompei reports that Benny began taking his lineman out to dinner before games. He started mentoring younger players. He conducted informal workout sessions with wide receivers and running backs. Antonio Brown credits Benny’s help in improving his game:
“He helped me be a better player by always challenging me,” said Antonio Brown, a former sixth-round pick who led the NFL in receiving yards last season. “No matter what you achieve, he’s always harping on continuously improving, finding ways to be better.”
He went from being stand-offish to hands-on with his teammates. Each year, a few more veteran players moved on. Ben stepped forward as a leader to the young players. He quizzed them, he pushed them. Now he challenged them to be more, just as Joey Porter pushed him.
Big Ben’s transformation as a teammate eventually carried over to his overall character. He gave up the bar scene, preferring to socialize over dinner. He got married and now has two children. He has not only reconnected with his faith, he has taken teammates to services.
I have to admit, although I noticed an absence of “Ben is a jagoff” articles since Milledgeville, I was unaware of the extent of Ben’s growth. I was pleased when he reached out to Martavis’s Bryant’s recent problems with substance abuse. It was reported that Big Ben called the young man every day he was in rehab. Pompei disclosed BB counseled Le’veon Bell in connection with his suspension:
“He has told me I can’t ever be in that situation again,” Bell said. “He has had situations where he has gotten in trouble. He got some grief for it. I’m getting that same type of thing now. He told me just to ignore it all and let my play speak for itself. He said eventually people will forget it as long as you become a better person and player. They will remember the good things.
“He’s always telling me right from wrong. He has said if I ever need help or have a problem, I should let him know.”
Benny has generously supported police and fire departments in Pittsburgh, his hometown of Findlay, Ohio, and throughout the country, providing their K-9 units with vests and service dogs. Ben’s charity is also very involved with the Make a Wish Foundation. His foundation had distributed $1.3 million to these causes since 2007. Just last year, Ben and his wife donated $1 million to his alma mater, Miami University of Ohio.
Ben finished his degree in 2012, graduating from Miami. According to the Toronto Star, BB intended to finish earlier, but deep runs into the playoffs in earlier seasons caused him to delay.
Charlie Batch, I believe, had no small role in Ben’s turnaround. Charlie was a Steelers’ backup QB from 2003 through 2012. Prior to signing with the Steelers, he was a solid starting QB with Detroit for four years. Charlie grew up in Homestead, a steel town just outside the Burgh. His roots, as well as his cool friendly demeanor, made him a fan favorite.
He was 6-3 as a starter and a consummate professional. More importantly, he was a mentor and sounding board for Ben. In an interview with Ron Cook of the Post-Gazette, Ben said:
“He was always the very first guy I talked to when I came off the field,” Roethlisberger said. “I’d ask him, ‘What did you see?’ I valued his opinion more than any other player or coach. And that’s no disrespect to anyone else. It’s just what I thought of Charlie. He never tried to impose himself on me. But he was always there when I needed him.”
Only a novelist could have scripted Charlie’s final game. He was filling in for Ben, who was injured. The game was in Baltimore—the Steelers snapped the Ravens’ fifteen game winning streak at home. Charlie was marvelous, completing 25 of 36 passes for 276 yards.
The 37 year old QB engineered a 61 yard drive in the closing minutes to set up a game winning FG as time expired. The photograph above shows Ben and Charlie in an emotional bear hug. No one outside Steeler Nation gave the Steelers any chance of winning after an terrible, ugly loss to Cleveland the previous week.
Charlie knew the game might well be the last of his career. I still remember the TV cameras sharing the long joyful moment between Charlie and Ben.
Charlie is now a broadcaster with KDKA and the Champs Sports Network. In 2006, he won the Jerome Bettis Award for Service and Humanity for his work with kids in Homestead. He was awarded the Whizzer White NFL Man of the Year award in 2012. His work in the Homestead community was sparked by the death of Danyl Settles, Charlie’s sister. She was shot in the head in Homestead, caught in the crossfire of rival gangs.
Charlie was only in college at the time. He was devastated and thought about quitting school. Instead, he endured, vowing that, if he ever got the chance, he would make a difference in his community. He kept that vow and Danyl lives on in his community work with poor kids. You can read more about Charlie’s foundation in a Behind the Steel Curtain article here. The article also describes his work as a Senior Captain with the Players Trust, which helps players adjust after being cut by NFL teams.
Why Ben and Charlie are both my favorite QB.
Even as late as last season, Ben was not my favorite QB, even though there is no QB past or present who I love watching more. But let’s lay the chips on the table—until 2010, Benny was a jerk (site protocol precludes use of my preferred noun).
Without re-hashing the Milledgeville incident, his actions that night combined with the numerous tales of bad behavior and a lackadaisical approach towards self-improvement turned me off. As QB for my beloved Steelers, I continued to cheer for success on the field, but felt no warmth for him for a very long time.
This year, I started to warm to what appears to be a new man. I’ve read some things that have changed my mind.
In the Ron Cook interview, quoted above, Ben says:
“I feel like I could go on for hours about Charlie,” Roethlisberger said. “He meant so much to me. I told him numerous times, ‘You made me what I am today.’ From on the field to off the field, as a quarterback and as a man. He truly is one of the best guys I’ve ever been around.”
Ben matured greatly from the bad teammate he admits he was. Pompei wrote “[h]e’s evolved into the opposite of a bad teammate—perhaps the league’s best teammate.”
I’m not sure Ben would be where he is today if it weren’t for Charlie Batch. I thought about selecting Charlie my favorite QB. He deserves it just by being the nice, caring classy man that he is. He’s been a great role model and mentor in Pittsburgh for a decade. Saving Ben from himself only enhances his merit. He is an impressive man.
But there’s also Ben. He’s walked a long, crooked road, made a ton of mistakes. With the help of many, especially Charlie, he found his way. He overcame. Many in life do not.
It’s hard to change. Looking back, I think that deep down, Benny always wanted to be what he has finally become—a leader, a good teammate and a good man. He refused to be defined by his mistakes. I’m glad he had someone like Charlie to turn to.
Ben got up after he was down; Charlie helped him up. Everyone could use a friend like that.