KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Jackie Battle stands in an unfamiliar environment, surrounded by reporters and answering questions about becoming a reliable option for fantasy football players. His friends have been asking him some of the same questions. He smiles and shrugs.
"I don't even understand the fantasy stuff," he says.
The group disbands, leaving the Chiefs running back alone at his locker. Things are different now for Battle, a 28-year-old who's getting his first real shot in the NFL. He has averaged 88 rushing yards the past three games since becoming the Chiefs' go-to running back and showing that, after four seasons as a special-teams contributor, he can offer more. He says this — the questions, a growing pressure on his shoulders — is part of the job. It doesn't mean he minds it.
"I definitely don't want it to end," he says.
Especially now. For the first time in a long while, Battle has something more exciting to think about than what's going on back home in Humble, Texas, a suburb of Houston. There's work to be done there and worry to be sent, but when he's enveloped in the euphoric combination of success and winning, it's at least a little more difficult to think much about that missing piece in his life.
During these months, Battle is a football player, and that has always been complicated enough. He was 130 pounds as a high-school freshman, too skinny for the varsity team or even JV, so coaches stuck him on the ninth-grade team. His teammates and friends kept getting bigger, and young Jackie kept staying the same.
The irony was that when he took up the game, he was the big kid. Back then, his mother, Acynthia Pettiford, would drop Jackie off at one practice and his two brothers to play with their own teams. There would be three games to attend each Saturday and hardly enough time to take a breath after a week of work and supporting three boys whose father lived in California.
Their mother was tough but thoughtful, and she wanted to see her boys grow up and be successful. Maybe there would come a time when they could sit and talk about Wilson Road and the tough apartments they once lived in, before Acynthia pulled her boys out of gangland and moved to the suburbs. What would those conversations be like? How satisfying would they be?
"She had to be our dad and a friend," says Battle's younger brother, Jamal. "... But she was tough on us. She didn't cut us no slack."
Jackie was the one who always saw success come easy. Jamal, now 24, says his brother could study for a test the night before and then ace it, or write the first words of a research paper a day earlier and dazzle the teacher with his thoughts. Trouble never found Jackie, and he never went looking for it.
It was on the football fields, though, that Jackie faced the highest obstacles. He had a taste of varsity during his junior season, brought onto the team for one Friday night and one chance at tight end, but he was so unmemorable that coaches sent him back down to JV the next week.
"I finally had a chance," he says now. "I was all pumped. I just didn't cut it."
Jackie finally hit a growth spurt before his senior season, packing on height and strength. The runt who couldn't find a position finally had one, running back, and at 6 feet 2 and 220 pounds, he was a heavy load that varsity defenders couldn't easily negotiate.
"I busted out," he says, a smile still attached to the memory.
Some of the college recruiters were there to see his teammates when they noticed Battle, whose combination of speed and size were difficult to ignore. He'd sidestep defenders or pull away from the ones lucky enough to get an arm or two around him, dragging them toward the end zone and helping Humble High win all but one of its games his senior year.
Battle was offered a scholarship to the University of Houston, where he again had to wait for an opportunity. When he got it, he went on to set a career record with 29 rushing touchdowns. Playing behind quarterback Kevin Kolb, now the starter for the Arizona Cardinals, the Cougars went 10-4 and won the Conference USA title in 2006.
In 2007, Battle was a draft prospect but no team selected him. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Dallas Cowboys, who released him after training camp. He joined the Chiefs, where he began the vagabond life of a fringe NFL player. Over the next three seasons, Battle was released, re-signed and assigned to the team's practice squad three times, each of those releases putting his future in jeopardy. Practice-squad players are guaranteed little, and their contracts are a fraction of the league's minimum salary for a player on the active roster.
Still, Battle never complained. He had a job he never planned for; the ride was lasting longer than he'd ever thought, mostly playing special teams. The weeks and months and seasons passed, and the Chiefs kept bringing him back.
"It's just a blessing every day that I'm here, especially the path I've taken," he says. "... I never knew I was going to make it."
Battle was in his third season in 2009 when the call came. According to Jamal Battle, a police officer from Texas called Jackie, saying something about how their mother was four hours from home and confused.
Jackie called Jamal to get answers, and they talked for a long time. The words were difficult to digest: Acynthia, who had sacrificed and steered them away from the threats of youth and poverty, had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. On this day in 2009, she drove toward the grocery store, forgetting her destination, and kept driving until her gas tank was empty. She was four hours from Humble when a police officer approached, asking where she was headed. She had no idea.
The only phone number she could recall was Jackie's. As his mother sought treatment and his family faced an uncertain future, Jackie tried focusing on football. His attention divided, he injured his shoulder that season, again putting his future in doubt.
"That kind of touched him real bad," Jamal says.
Jamal Battle says his mother again went missing in August 2010, and her disorder has worsened. On the good days, she's able to hold a conversation, though she quickly forgets what has been said. On the bad days, she speaks about a handful of topics from her past, often her deceased father or a dog that her boys took in during their childhood.
The worst part, Jamal says, is that Acynthia, 51, has no idea that Jackie's ride has now taken him into the starting lineup of an NFL team. That Jackie Battle has become the most dependable rusher on a team stunned by a season-ending injury to Jamaal Charles and the career decline of 33-year-old Thomas Jones.
"Jackie wound up making it," Jamal says.
But when the talk at home turns to her son's success, and the realization of a dream she had years ago, it's little more than a foreign language to her. Jamal says that's difficult on his brother; their mother is unable to experience the payoff to the sacrifices she made years ago.
"It bothers him because he's 12 hours away," Jamal says. There's not much he can do."
For his part, Battle has done what he can. He sends part of his salary to his grandmother, who is Acynthia's caregiver now, to pay for insurance and expenses. Otherwise, he has tried to make his own way, buying a home with his wife and becoming baptized this year. He's also focusing more on his career, especially now that the circumstances have again offered an opportunity after so much waiting.
"He's used to working his way up to something instead of just expecting it to happen," says Walt Beasley, who was Battle's offensive coordinator at Humble High. "If it doesn't, he doesn't give up. He continues to work."
Jamal Battle says he talks to his brother often, giving updates about what's going on back home. But the family also gives him distance now to pursue the next stage of his NFL career, assuring him that his mother is being cared for. Jackie Battle says that maybe the twists and turns of his career, and now of his life, have taught him to appreciate opportunities like this — even as he faces more challenges.
It was only two months ago, he says, that he was waiting by the phone, waiting to see if he had even made the Chiefs roster, which was loaded then with running backs. No one could've predicted what would come next. For now, he says he's enjoying it; making the most of this latest twist.
"I'm still going to take it day by day," he says. "I had to work my butt off to get here, and it's always been hanging on by a thread. I'm still going to prepare like I don't know what my future is going to be."