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Published: Dec. 15, 2012, at 2 p.m.

Steel Resolve
Baron Batch plays football, creates art and makes a mean salsa. But life wasn’t always as stress-free for the burgeoning renaissance man, who worked his way through an impossible childhood to become a Pittsburgh Steeler

Aditi Kinkhabwala & NFL Network

PITTSBURGH -- Baron Batch always eats every last thing on his plate. It wasn't all that long ago that he didn't have a plate. Or at least, enough food to put on one.

Batch is a second-year running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, an angry downhill runner with an uncanny proficiency for picking up blitzes, a mean touch in the kitchen and brilliantly white teeth. When there's no candy or soda or really anything processed to eat as a child, tartar has no chance to take hold.

This story begins on a dirt road a half dozen miles off Highway 1787, somewhere outside Midland, Texas, and by an abandoned airstrip. A broken-down, partially charred, three-bedroom trailer sat out there, home to five Batch kids and, for a time, parents Joyce and Juan Batch. The Batch siblings were all two years apart, give or take a few months; the lone girl is the eldest, Baron is the middle child.

There wasn't a telephone in the house or enough beds. There were space heaters and an open oven door, towels and hoodies for coverings on the floor; the first time Baron would regularly sleep in a bed was college. There was, however, a vegetable garden out back. And there were books. Lots and lots of books, and a mother who demanded her children read them, speak clearly and never ferret out cause to complain.

“I never remember my mom complaining about anything,” Batch says, sitting in his living room in a rented home on the south side of Pittsburgh. “Looking back, knowing how bad it was, you know how hard it must have been on her. I can't imagine my future kids having to go through what I had to go through.”

“I feel like where I came from, that's why I work hard.”

aron Batch was a seventh-round draft pick out of Texas Tech in 2011. He quickly distinguished himself in camp, and running backs coach Kirby Wilson said he’d already pegged him to be the Steelers’ third-down back before a single kickoff. Then came the final practice before Pittsburgh’s first preseason game. Batch planted his foot oddly, felt his knee give and his first NFL season ended before it ever started.

He’d been down this road before. In college, he broke his ankle so severely he needed seven surgeries. Then a bone infection set in, turning everything to, as Batch recalled it, “mush.” He almost died; the hospital called in a priest to give him last rites.

As is his nature, he laughs about both ailments. First that college injury: “I’m glad they didn’t tell me they brought in a priest!” And then, last year’s injury: “It’s me. Everything has to be a little harder.”

Still, the Steelers saw something in Batch and so they kept him last August, putting him on injured reserve. He worked out at the team’s facility all season. He took Tupperware containers into the team cafeteria to bring home what might get thrown away otherwise, and Wilson said he never doubted Batch would be back this season. Neither did safety Troy Polamalu. Rookies’ faces all run together, but this one Polamalu remembered: In a one-on-one drill, Batch stood up to one-time Defensive Player of the Year and certifiably scary linebacker James Harrison. Rookies don't do that. Heck, veterans don't do that.

Batch has always cooked. Vegetables from the garden, quail from the traps he and his brothers set and, when times were especially lean, cactus fried in butter. When Batch moved to Western Pennsylvania, he longed for the spicy food of West Texas. Discarding one grocery store salsa after another, he began experimenting with habanero peppers, tomatoes, limes and jalapeños. He perfected a now closely-guarded recipe and brought some into the Steelers’ locker room. As football players are wont to do, they dug in.

Batch's salsa is spicy. Beads of sweat pop up on the eater's nose. He can make it spicier. He can make it milder, too. But he won't.

“If you want it less spicy, you don't get any salsa,” he says. Wholly serious, of course. The salsa has turned into a burgeoning business in the locker room, albeit an unprofitable one. Batch charges only for ingredients. He packs the salsa in Mason jars from Target. Defensive end Ziggy Hood goes through a jar a week and said he couldn't care less what Batch's recipe is.

“As long as he keeps providing it, we're good,” he said.

Batch has no plans to market the salsa. Nor does he ever dream about seeing his face next to Paul Newman's in the local Giant Eagle. Cooking is about love, he says, and providing for those you love.

This is where it gets dicey. Batch is working on repairing his relationship with his father Juan, and he does not want to jeopardize that. But Baron still admits to a lot of unresolved resentment at best, fury at worst. In Baron and his older brother Brian’s memory, Baron was in elementary school when his mother Joyce was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She slowly began the devastating process of deterioration, soon not being able to garden, then cook and then move without a wheelchair. Juan was building houses, away for months at a time, and then, when Baron said he was about 10, away forever, off to New Orleans and largely out of his children’s lives.

In a recent phone conversation, Juan Batch didn’t want to fully confirm that, but he didn’t dispute it either. He said he is extremely proud of his kids and praises the “training” his children received from their mother. But he quietly admits, in a roundabout way, something eldest son Brian surmised a few weeks before: that reality became a bit overwhelming, especially when his wife’s health worsened.

“From my standpoint and their standpoint, it was so traumatic. I found myself more than once (feeling that) doing the business, raising the kids -- I found it to be extremely stressful,” Juan Batch said. “For the kids to come through all of that and be adjusted and for them to have the relationship with me they do, I think it’s God. He had a hand in it. He said, ‘We’re going to get you through this.’ ”

Dad was gone. Mom’s health was rapidly robbing her of independence. The austere Batch home became even more so. And then came the day when the Batch children came home from school to find their mother sprawled on the floor. She’d tumbled out of her wheelchair, couldn’t haul herself back in and stayed there all day, waiting.

Brian guesses he was 13 at this point; the oldest, Bridget, 15. This whole time period is hazy for the Batch kids; probably purposefully, Baron acknowledges. The kids sat together and accepted that their mother needed more care and attention than they could give. With the help of their father’s brother, a doctor in Odessa, Texas, they had her placed in a full-time nursing facility.

Baron is fairly sure the state paid for it. He is also fairly sure there was no debate amongst the siblings, that there was a solemn recognition this was the only choice. And as he talks, he remembers the day she was actually taken away, a short time after the fall.

“I got home from school and I was expecting her just to be there,” Baron says. “I knew the situation, but I was still expecting her to be home, just because that’s how it had been. I remember I got home and she wasn’t there. ...

“And I remember, I got home and in lipstick, she wrote on the wall, ‘I love you.’ ” He pauses, his eyes well up and then he claps to push the tears away: “I didn’t even know I remember that.”