Ainsley Battles, Steelers Safety, 2000, 2004
First, can you let readers know about life after football and your new venture ( Joccupation) – what is it, how did this get started and how is it going so far?
Well, I stopped playing after I tore my hamstring in ’04. It required surgery to re-attach it. Due to the severity of the injury, it was one of those things – it damaged my speed and ability and the team had to make a financial decision to not keep me. I wasn’t a starter…they wouldn’t pay me after that injury to be a backup.
I had graduated from Vanderbilt and my degree helped me to become a teacher – I’m still teaching world history to tenth graders.
The Joccupation idea was a by-product of my NFL career. When I was done playing there was nothing. It was like the quiet before the storm. Sports life is so regimented. After sports, all you know is that sports life. That was your normal. After that, you realize there isn’t anything. No more coaches…it’s just you. When you are playing you don’t have time to think about life after football. You also just don’t want to think about not playing after working so hard to get there.
How did the Joccupation idea itself come about?
I went to the NFLPA Life After Football Symposium. I saw an opportunity with those guys – they all have a need for that next thing after football. They all have to make that transition – all athletes go through it in every sport.
With technology and social media, we wanted to create a place for all athletes to talk about their experiences. We want companies see the skills that playing sports gives an athlete, even though we lack work experience. We have life experience and that makes up for that. Athletes have to figure out what we want to do after sports.
I tried sales, and that wasn’t a match for me. I wanted something with a purpose. Teaching was that for me – it matched what I was looking for. Understanding education – that there is an art to teaching people. I figured if you can teach math and writing, you can teach people how to transition as well.
Joccupation took four years to develop. I had to meet the right people who shared the same vision and put the right pieces in place. One business partner built the website, another created the style and images and I worked on the content for the site. All of us work together to make it possible.
It’s going well – everyone we talk to seems to get it. We still have growing pains as a new company. The internet is a big place and we’re trying to make our mark with a limited budget.
The service we are providing – once people start using it – we know they’ll come back. We’re giving athletes a chance to connect with each other across all sports to share life experiences – to connect with each other.
Do the NFL and NFLPA do enough for retired players to prepare players for life after football?
I believe they do but more is needed. Not from the standpoint of what they are not doing. It’s more from the point of view of how athletes go through life. Once you are in sports, you don’t want to think of life after sports. It’s hard to take seriously the idea of life after the game until you are forced to. They don’t listen to that a lot when they are playing – athletesd can be very superstitious.
When guys are done playing, they disappear. They leave the city, the facility…. That gap is what needs to be filled. We’re trying to fill that gap so people have a community to turn to after their career ends. When it all stops. We’re trying to help players with the depression that comes after they stop doing their passion. Our goal is to help athletes create a new passion using the same drive and determination it took to accomplish their first passion.
You made the team as an UDFA – how did you do so – what about your play caught the coaches’ eyes, do you think?
Production. All I needed was an opportunity. Coming from Vanderbilt, we always had a good defense. Not winning though showed me how to work. To never got distracted. I was focused on my job and gave it my all. You can’t just turn it off and on.
So I think it was my complete body of work. When we played Dallas in the preseason, I made every tackle on kick off coverage and had an interception. I just wanted to show up as much as possible on film.
Who helped mentor you as a rookie and helped you adjust to the NFL, on and off the field? How did they do so?
I observed a lot. Being in the locker room, I had Flowers, Washington, Scott, Kirkland, Hines, Townsend – a lot of people to watch. They didn’t necessarily teach me, but I observed them and they way they approached the game.
What did you notice that helped you most?
The work ethic of the defensive backs. Watching them work showed me that those guys were on a level I needed to get at. I realized my best needed to get better.
I watched tape with Brent Alexander and that taught me a lot too. In Jacksonville, I went to Donovan Darius’ house and saw for the first a player with his kids. That these were more than just guys on the field. I saw them as people and realized that my family, friends were helping to keep me grounded too. They didn’t let me get a big head.
Who were some of the biggest characters on the 2000 and 2004 teams?
Dawson and Kirkland – the way they always poked fun at each other was hilarious. In the locker room, they’d walk by each other in their tighty-whities and tell each other they looked like wrestling trunks (laughing).
Earl Holmes was a character and a good guy. We all did karaoke and went to Dave & Busters. They had those Indy cars you could drive there and the guys would all keep records of their times. The guys hung out all the time.
How did Jacksonville compare in that regard?
Jacksonville was the same, but different. It was a new team and a young team. Most guys were my age so we did more typical things guys my age with the financial resources and opportunities we had would do.
I won’t even ask…
Exzctly. Enough said there (laughing).
You signed with Jacksonville after the 2000 season. What prompted that departure and how hard was that for you?
I like the way you said that. It wasn’t my choice, I was cut in 2000. I started the last two games then was a last cut in training camp. I was released on a Saturday and my agent called me Sunday to tell me Jacksonville picked up my contract. I was in Jacksonville Monday morning at one a.m. and week one I ended up playing against the Steelers. That’s the way the NFL works. Disappointments become opportunities.
Did the Steelers give you any good-natured grief in that game?
That’s the thing – they didn’t see me as “the enemy”. They understand it’s a job. They came up to me after the game and still said good game, good luck….It showed me the type of team it was. Their professionalism.
Did you ever get a good feel for why you were released by Pittsburgh?
When you are released they don’t lay out exactly why. The coaches take educated guesses as to the team’s dynamics. It was a numbers game and they just felt more comfortable with others.
Willie Robinson, the defensive backs coach, spoke with me and told me the same thing – it was just a numbers game.
You came back again four years later in 2004. How did that happen?
In 2004 they had an opening on their roster. I actually called Anthony Griggs, the player development specialist for Pittsburgh then. I had worked out with Verron Haynes in the offseason and he gave me Anthony’s number. I told him I wanted to play and it turned out they had an opportunity and signed me.
Then, in the fourth quarter of the first game of the season I tore my hamstring. That’s how my career ended.
What are your best memories as a Steelers?
My first start was the last game in Three Rivers. To be in that atmosphere and to be a part of that lineage was very humbling and exciting. It was one of those moments of awe. Franco Harris, Blount, Green and Gilliam were all there. That was just a couple of weeks or so before Gilliam passed…
It was just a wow moment. Playing on the same field that those guys did – the history that was made on that field and being a part of it …. I still have the jersey with the Three Rivers patch on it.
Any last thoughts for readers?
The way in which I approached football – finding success and failure – made me a better father, son, teacher and coach. I have no regrets – I gave it my all. Sometimes my best was not good enough and sometimes it was just enough. It all gave me my perspective on what I could achieve in life.
I want to give a special thanks to Alvin McGrew. When I was frustrated at Vanderbilt and didn’t know if I wanted to pursue a career in football, he encouraged me to find out how good I could be. That conversation changed my life and I am indebted to him for being there.