From tragedy, Steelers' Charlie Batch offers hope
Steelers player Charlie Batch gives a present to Shaterra Lee, 5, who is at the Salvation Army with her mother as part of the Best of the Batch Foundation activities.
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From a red brick building that once was a funeral home, within sight of the cemetery where his murdered sister is buried, Charlie Batch offers chances for renewal.
While the symbolism may not be as tidy as the mythical phoenix rising from its ashes, it gets to the heart of the Best of the Batch Foundation, which was created out of a personal tragedy to help kids in the place where he grew up.
"Something was taken away that can never be replaced," said the backup quarterback for the Steelers. "There's always a reminder, like something as small as putting an ornament on the Christmas tree, or having to pass her grave every time I drive to my mom's house.
"But I said that if I had the chance, I'd give back to the community. We didn't want any other family to go through what we went through, to be the lead story on the 11 o'clock news. Now we have a purpose."
He never had a chance to say goodbye when his younger sister, Danyl Settles, was killed in the crossfire between warring gangs nearly 14 years ago. But her spirit lives on through a series of programs that serves as an opportunity for the youth of Homestead, West Homestead and Munhall.
For example, there are 26 computer stations at the foundation headquarters on West Street, just down from the Munhall police station, and within throwing distance of West Field, where Josh Gibson and the Homestead Grays once played.
Kids come from the Steel Valley School District to access the technology at what they call the "Charlie Batch school." Many are troubled students looking for one last shot at staying in school.
"Charlie has provided a safe place for students to learn," said middle school Principal Kevin Walsh. "He overcame a horrible family tragedy to be a good positive role model. He's a godsend."
The foundation reaches out to youngsters in a number of ways, such as dispensing backpacks, or "Batch packs," the modern-day book bag. Third-graders at his old school, Barrett Elementary, receive donated dictionaries.
"What I like about Charlie is he comes to us. We don't have to come to him," said Principal Sharon Fisher. "He comes to the school to hand them out and has the kids look up the definition of success."
Success is the accomplishment of a goal, or a thing or person that turns out well. It dovetails nicely with his favorite quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."
On the surface, his life reads like a storybook. A gifted quarterback leads the Steel Valley Ironmen to a WPIAL title, earns a scholarship to Eastern Michigan University, gets drafted by the Detroit Lions and ultimately returns to play for the Steelers, then re-invests in his hometown.
But Charlie Batch, who almost fell through the cracks himself, has lived a more complex tale.
For one thing, he failed sixth grade, not because he didn't know the material but because he didn't do the work. He had to sit out football season until his grades improved, and his mother made him watch practices to teach a lesson of tough love.
"It was one of the loneliest feelings I ever had. But I learned something," Mr. Batch said. "If it was taken from me, it was my fault. I didn't apply myself."
It's no coincidence that good grades go hand in glove with what the Best of the Batch Foundation offers.
Each year, he takes 100 or so students, selected by their teachers, on a field trip to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. They earn their seat on the bus with passing grades, good attendance and participation in an extracurricular activity.
Schoolwork is also a cornerstone of the foundation's signature program, a summer basketball league for boys and girls ages 7 to 18. Games are played on the 16th Avenue playground in Homestead named for Charlie Batch.
Participants must have a 2.2 grade point average, which is a higher standard than public schools. They also have to read a book to keep their playing status.
Last year, 350 kids played hoops in Project CHUCK -- Continuously Helping Uplift Community Kids. That's 200 more than when the program opened in 2002. While most of the players come from Steel Valley, students from other communities are invited to play as a way of breaking down neighborhood barriers.
Games are a community activity. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger brought basketball star Shaquille O'Neal to a game last summer, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was in attendance for the championships.
Pitt All-American DeJuan Blair once played in the league. After he signed with the NBA's San Antonio Spurs, he wrote a check to the Batch foundation to cover the costs of two backboards he broke.
Other veterans of the blacktop courts are Jeannette's Terrelle Pryor, now at Ohio State, and Aliquippa's Herb Pope, now at Seton Hall. Over the years, 39 kids from the summer league have gone to college, on both academic and sports scholarships.
Every kid who plays is given Mr. Batch's cell phone number.
"I tell them, 'Don't be playing games on my phone,' but I want them to know they have a place to go if they have a problem. I was one of those kids. I can relate," he said.
"Sports is one way to draw them in, but they have to work. It's a privilege to play. You have to earn your right to be on the court. Don't tell me you can't make it. I grew up on these streets."
The games are more than something to do in the summer. Observers say they can prevent crime.
"Kids have something else to do other than standing on the street corner," said Homestead Mayor Betty Esper. "When the games are being played, we know where the kids are.
"We have a saying around here that once a Homesteader, always a Homesteader. It's a tough town, but it has strong people. Charlie would have given back to the community no matter what the circumstances. He's just a good example for kids," she added.
The model has gotten the attention of Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and local and federal prosecutors, among others.
Wilkinsburg adapted it to form its own summer basketball league, called HOOPS -- Helping to Overcome Obstacles by Perseverance and Strength.
Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper hopes to bring it to city neighborhoods, possibly as soon as this summer.
"We would like to duplicate this program and launch it into the various communities throughout the city," he said. "Charlie has had much success with the program, which has helped change the lives of many youths and has helped focus their mindsets on being law-abiding citizens and make their dreams attainable as they grow into adulthood."
A couple of years before the NFL came calling, Charlie Batch was in his college residence when his mother phoned on Feb. 18, 1996.
"Charlie, pack your bags and come home," she said.
"Sure, but you have to tell me why first," he answered.
Then came a pause.
She had to search for the words to tell her son his sister was dead.
Danyl Settles, a junior at Steel Valley who had turned 17 on Jan. 16, was walking in a Homestead alley with a friend at 7 p.m.
At the time, the Homestead gangs of Easties and Westies were fighting over turf. Gunfire erupted that Sunday night, and Danyl was hit in the head. She was the first to die among seven people who were shot in Homestead in 20 days. The other victims were males in their late teens to late 20s.
There would be no justice for her, and to this day, details of what happened are sketchy.
Her friend, John Payne, testified at a coroner's hearing that he was unarmed when a gunman ambushed them. He was contradicted, however, by a police informant who said gunfire had been returned, and Mr. Payne invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
But there was confusion over whether one or two informants witnessed return fire. When authorities did not produce a second informant for questioning and cross-examination under oath, homicide charges were dismissed against Rico Carter, of Homestead.
Mr. Carter was later convicted of attempted homicide and other charges for shooting at Braddock police Officer Louis Zelepos in 1999. His sentence carries a maximum of 40 years in prison.
Former Allegheny County police detective James Cvetic, who worked Danyl's case, was criticized for sloppy police work by Common Pleas Judge John Zottola.
Mr. Cvetic was later transferred from homicide to narcotics. He retired from the county police force in 2001 and has dedicated himself to ending street violence through programs such as Golden Gloves boxing. But the case still haunts him.
"Did I make mistakes? The judge said I did," Mr. Cvetic said. "I carried Danyl's picture around with me for years. It's one of those cases you carry around forever. I have to carry it on my shoulder like a sack. I couldn't make it right. She was completely innocent."
Two things stick out in his memory: how strong the girl's family was, and the injustice of a slaying that wasn't prosecuted.
"The whole thing was horrific. It was a killing field," Mr. Cvetic said, adding that he believes other people should have been prosecuted in Danyl's death but investigators couldn't amass enough evidence against them. "It didn't matter who pulled the trigger. They all pulled the trigger. I wish the iron gate would have closed behind all of them. If I could go back in time ...
"It was a terrible, terrible thing. The only good thing that came out of it was Charlie Batch. He's helped so many kids, so many families."
Every year around the holidays, a letter arrives at the foundation from an inmate locked up in the state prison system. He claims to know what happened, but in exchange for the information, he wants Charlie Batch's help in getting out of prison.
"I can't do that. My sister's life does not come with a price," Mr. Batch said. "Where was this person 13 years ago when it could have made a difference? I don't even open the letters now. I have them shredded. I don't want to put my family through all that pain again. We put it behind us and moved on."
It was a soul-searching process.
"Time. It just took time. It took a while for me to even talk about it," said Mr. Batch, who almost dropped out of college over the ordeal. "There is nothing I can do to bring her back. It was God's plan. If we continue to hold on to the anger rather than get a resolution, we can't live our lives. I came to a point of doing whatever I could to prevent this from happening to somebody else. I don't want to know. We're at peace."
One of the inspirational messages adorning the walls at the Best of the Batch Foundation says: "Never Let Yesterday's Disappointments Overshadow Tomorrow's Choices."
Nobody at the foundation draws a salary. It runs on the efforts of 100 volunteers and the work of the Steelers, all quarterbacked by a player known as "Papa" because he's one of the oldest players on the team.
At a recent fundraiser for the foundation, more than 30 Steelers attended, including Pro Bowl players James Harrison and Casey Hampton. Art Rooney II, the owner of the team who chose Mr. Batch to be the team spokesman for the United Way, also attended.
Before Christmas, a number of Steelers helped Mr. Batch collect about 8,000 toys and gifts for underprivileged kids. Some went to the Toys For Tots program sponsored by the Marine Corps. Others were distributed to a women's shelter and the Salvation Army.
But sacks of toys also were delivered to the Allegheny County Jail for the children of inmates. "Kids can't choose who their parents are. It's not their fault," Mr. Batch said.
And every time the Best of the Batch touches a life, the spirit of Danyl Settles lives on.
"She's remembered. Lots of kids who never met her know who she is," Mr. Batch said. "I know we can't save everybody. But if we save just one, it's one more than we saved yesterday."
For a brother and a family, it's the definition of renewal.
First Published January 3, 2010 12:00 am