Ten years removed from his pinnacle of high school football, the place young boys, old men and townsfolk dream of every August, the quarterback for the Denton Rhinos walks as one of five captains, leading his team into the coin toss.
While the football game means something to those playing, there’s hardly anybody in the stands at Plano’s John Clark Stadium.
The entire visitors’ side is empty, while the shaded home side is three-quarters full in the lower section.
On that clear Saturday evening in May, the Denton Rhinos took on the North Texas Longhorns in the semifinals of the Texas United Football League playoffs.
Ten years ago, this is not where anybody expected James Battle to be — inside a vacant stadium, a quarterback for a semi-pro football team, and the 28-year-old version of a once-promising prospect.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the second of Ryan’s back-to-back Class 4A state championships. Battle was the quarterback for those two teams. During that time, he was regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in all of Texas and the decade.
The thoughts of splendor quickly dissipated. Battle never turned into the quarterback everybody thought he’d be. Today, that’s something with which he’s perfectly OK.
“From what we did do in high school, everybody expects a lot from you, even out of football,” Battle said. “I stopped worrying about what everybody expected out of me. I don’t care what one person thinks or the next. I just live my life and then worry about the next day, because every day’s not promised.”
Following brief stints at TCU and Stephen F. Austin, Battle is back in Denton where he grew up. In his college career, Battle played two games, missed both his pass attempts and rushed for a loss of 9 yards.
He has two kids, one of whom has shown symptoms of epilepsy, is unmarried and works as a home manager at D&S Community Services, which provides care and service for individuals with developmental disabilities.
He says his body feels like it’s 23, but his face reads he’s a little older than that. He stands at a shade under 6-foot-3 and around 210 pounds, donning a neatly trimmed beard. He speaks calmly and slowly with a tinge of the South in his voice, attributes that earned him the labels of “stuck-up” and “quiet” at SFA.
Battle is relegated to semi-pro football, hoping to possibly move up to a league where he gets paid to play. If not, he’ll be forced to call an end to his career.
The two state championships enshrined inside Ryan High School’s half-museum, half-fieldhouse were won in large part because of Battle’s ability to command the Raiders’ offense.
Battle was the featured inside Dave Campbell’s Texas Football in 2002. Coming into his senior season, he had already lost and won a state title.
In the 2000 Class 4A Division I state title game against Bay City, Battle threw four interceptions, fumbled twice and was sacked six times. In the 2001 4A Division I final against Smithson Valley, Battle led Ryan on a 67-yard touchdown drive to tie the score in the fourth quarter before the Raiders won 42-35 in overtime. Battle rushed for 185 yards, threw for 207 yards and had five total touchdowns.
The offers and looks from around the nation were beginning to pour in, with interest coming from Oklahoma, Penn State and Tennessee. Ryan’s game against Ennis in the regular season was already being touted as a battle of the quarterbacks, with Battle going up against Graham Harrell, who later went on to play at Texas Tech and as a backup for the Green Bay Packers.
Like he did with everything else, Battle kept all the letters colleges sent stored in big boxes about three feet high. He was awarded with a plaque and an oversized can of Wolf chili as a trophy for being the company’s player of the year. They rested side by side for five years, and Battle was just as proud of the plaque as he was of the chili.
“James is the best athlete I’ve ever coached,” Ryan head coach Joey Florence said. “I didn’t get the opportunity to coach Austin Jackson, but he’s certainly in that league of elite athletes. Of all the years I’ve coached, he’s probably the best pure athlete that I’ve coached.”
Florence said Battle’s potential and possibilities were limitless. Battle’s strengths abounded with his arm and his feet, a dual-threat quarterback hoping he’d be blitzed, because he was ready to make the defense look foolish.
Ryan crushed Brenham 38-8 for the 2002 4A Division II state title, with Battle accounting for 323 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns.
“Battle is a super football player,” Brenham head coach Glen West told the Houston Chronicle following the game. “He was better than I thought he was.”
Current Denton head coach Kevin Atkinson was Ryan’s offensive coordinator in 2000 and 2001, the man Battle credits for all his expertise at quarterback. Atkinson praised Battle’s intelligence, saying he set the benchmark for future quarterbacks Atkinson coached.
“I found myself, with quarterbacks I’ve had since then, I’ve really had to bear down on things that he was easily able to accomplish as a sophomore,” Atkinson said. “He just had that knack that you want in every quarterback. He can run, he can throw, he can do everything that you wanted your quarterbacks to do.”
Battle’s best moment may have been in the 2002 semifinals against Ennis, a rematch of the regular-season meeting Ennis had won and a game remembered by many as one of the greatest of the decade.
A successful onside kick squeezed between two touchdowns helped Ryan halt Ennis’ 16-game playoff win streak, adding to the legacy of everyone involved.
Florence said Battle had better games than that day, but in front of 23,459, the comeback epitomized Battle as a player.
“A lot of other kids would have folded under the pressure,” Florence said. “But I think James, if you were ever around James, his demeanor never changed. He didn’t panic. He just went out there, and did what James has always done — found a way to win.”
And out of all the schools he could have gone to, Battle decided to go to one that probably thought it had no shot at landing a recruit like him — TCU. It was Battle who sought out TCU, looking to join head coach Gary Patterson, who was then heading into his third year with the Horned Frogs.
Battle’s love for his family ultimately led to the downfall of his collegiate career. If it wasn’t for his family, however, there’s a strong chance he never could have been the quarterback he was.
Growing up, James “Kent” Battle Sr. had groomed his son to follow in his footsteps, to become a hard-nosed running back. The senior Battle was a star running back at Denton and was playing football out at Bakersfield College in California when he got a call from his then-girlfriend, Tammy, saying she was pregnant. Battle’s parents met growing up in the same neighborhood, and as Tammy puts it, if Kent took one step, she took the other. The two were almost inseparable.
Battle Sr. quit school and the team to go take care of his family. When he walked through the door and saw his son lying on the bed, he immediately knew he had made the right choice. Battle Sr. was raised by a single mother, and he didn’t want his kids to experience what he went through.
When he was about 8 years old, Battle Jr. began playing touch football, but he quickly found out he was too rough for that. He then realized he needed to play with kids a couple years older than him.
Then one day, as Battle and his father were leaving practice with Jay Catlin, James’ uncle and Kent’s brother-in-law, Catlin tossed James a ball and said, “Hey man, throw this ball.” Battle threw it about 40 yards. Catlin badgered Battle Sr. to allow his son be a quarterback.
“I’m telling you he’s going to be a great quarterback,” Catlin told his brother-in-law all the way home.
Catlin, a quarterback at Denton while Battle Sr. was the running back, groomed his nephew all summer and he’s been a quarterback ever since.
Meanwhile, Battle Sr. continued raising his three kids, James, daughter Te’Arica, now 26, and his other son, Adarius, known as AJ, now 21.
When Battle Sr. left the house, he couldn’t leave without his oldest son and his daughter tagging along, doing their best to keep up with their father.
The children and their father piled into the car, and Battle Sr. would drive into Southeast Denton, going around and showing them all the things he didn’t want his kids to be, what he didn’t want them to have.
He pointed at a house he used to live in, telling his kids to find better than that house. He showed his daughter women with a slew of kids running around, telling her to be financially stable before she got into a relationship and not to rush into having kids.
Battle Sr. showed and told his kids about a once-great football player who had had developed an affinity for crack cocaine.
“You see that guy right there?” Battle Sr. would ask his children. “That was the best doggone running back in the state of Texas. Now look at him now. You guys aren’t going to be turning out like that.”
One May morning in 1997, Battle Sr. looked at his 13-year-old son before he went to school and told him, “I might not be coming home today.”
Battle Sr. didn’t come home for 15 years. He served 15 years in prison for what he said was statutory rape, what the courts said was sexual assault of a child, a second-degree felony. He said he didn’t know he was having sex with underage girls, and he still doesn’t know how the situation morphed into what it became.
“What possessed me to go out and do something like that, I couldn’t tell you to this day, because I was real faithful to my wife,” Battle Sr. said. “I hardly went out. It was all about working and taking care of my family. But that situation … I still don’t understand to this day how I got off-course. I don’t know.”
With her husband gone, Tammy Battle was left to raise her kids alone, and the junior Battle was forced to quickly become the man of the house, incurring whatever responsibilities the title entailed.
When James was 14, Tammy asked her son to take the car to the store and fetch some items. He thought she was joking. She wasn’t.
Tammy, who is 47 and has the same charming smile of her son, was and still is working two jobs. Back then, she had to be in Coppell at 7 a.m. and was unable to drop Te’Arica and AJ off at the bus stop for school. The children’s mother changed their address to her parents’ house two miles away so the kids could take the bus.
James piled his siblings into the car and dropped them off each morning and picked them up each afternoon for the span of about two years. He drove to middle school and his dad told him to park the car at his friend’s apartment so he wouldn’t get caught.
As James rode around town while most kids were still on their bikes, Tammy would pray, “Lord, don’t let the police stop my kid.”
One day, James ran a stop sign and got pulled over by an undercover officer. The officer was brief, and told the teenager if he got caught going back down the road, he’d be headed to jail. James heeded the warning and immediately left the scene.
He didn’t get his license until he was 17. He got his license so he could visit his mom when she moved to Lewisville. The kids stayed in Denton mostly to take care of their aging grandparents, but also so James could finish his junior and senior years at Ryan, the years Ryan won state.
After their father went away, the kids latched on to their mother, who went on to divorce Battle Sr. in 2007.
“Those kids, it took them a long time to leave me,” Tammy Battle said. “They were so attached to me. I was like, ‘I don’t know if they will ever grow up and just go.’”
AJ and James only moved out of the house a few months ago, taking over a fully furnished apartment their sister hadn’t slept at in six months, because she, too, was living at home.
Whether in life or on the field, Battle seemed to stumble into adversity, causing him to do what he does best — scramble and avoid the pressure, a method not meant for long-term success.
Shortly after Battle had signed with TCU, he discovered his girlfriend, Brittney King, was pregnant. King was a cheerleader at Ryan and was Atkinson’s nanny for a little while.
Battle had to maneuver his way through his freshman year in Fort Worth while trying to visit King and spot her cash whenever he could. James Battle III, known as Trey, was born in November 2003, and Battle redshirted his freshman year.
Florence visited Battle once a week and served as his mentor while Battle’s father was in prison.
“[Florence] knows what the hell he’s talking about, and you don’t realize what he’s saying until you think about it in a couple of days, and then you’re like, ‘That’s what the hell he meant,’” Battle said.
The advice only helped for so long. Between school and a child, Battle was missing practices in his first year and left an impression on the coaching staff he could never shake. He knew the coaching staff couldn’t trust him to be their quarterback, not to mention the team already had a two-quarterback system in place. However, despite injuries throughout the year to the team’s quarterbacks, Battle never played a down at TCU.
He couldn’t take it. Battle, crying on the phone, called Florence and told him he had to leave TCU, that he couldn’t stay in Fort Worth and could be a quarterback at another school.
In 2005, Battle went down to Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches, Atkinson’s alma mater, in hopes of competing with Zeke Dixon and a few others for the starting role.
The change couldn’t bring Battle what he wanted. He saw minimal action on the field, and he said he wasn’t trying to be faithful to his girlfriend.
When he was asked to switch positions, he immediately packed up his things and left college for good. He’s never returned to school.
Last season in the TUFL, it was the Longhorns who bounced the Rhinos out of the playoffs. The Rhinos were taking the field on this Saturday in May hoping to avenge the loss and move on to the league’s championship game.
In between drives, Battle stands alone on the sidelines. The solitude is how he prefers it.
When he was in high school, he played every down for his father. He’d be alone, thinking by himself, saying, “Hey man, this is for you. You can’t hear me, but this is for you.”
His father was in cellblock J5, cell No. 10 in the Wallace Unit in Colorado City.
“When he went, it hurt me,” Battle said. “But as far as years after, I got over all the hurt, and I realized he wasn’t going to be back for a while. That pain became like a force, even on the field.”
But on this day, he’s dedicating each drive to his late grandparents. The game goes as a semi-pro game is expected to go.
One of the Longhorns has his face painted like the Joker from Batman. One of the kickers is barefoot. During a point-after attempt, the Longhorns’ holder attempts a no-look, behind-the-back pass while kneeling, a pass that goes incomplete and leaves the team’s coaching staff incensed.
The game is delayed by what ends up being possibly 40 minutes, when the referees can’t figure out happened on a fake punt on 4th-and-long inside the Longhorns’ 10.
One of the Longhorns players sprints up the empty bleachers, yelling at a woman in the press box to bring a camera down so the referees can see what happened. The crowd gets restless, impatient and agitated, and eventually, a pair of police officers stand on the railing of the stands behind the first tier, making their presence felt.
A mother takes her young child out of the bleachers, just in case things get out of hand. The down is eventually replayed.
Fittingly, Denton finds itself down 32-13 with 6:33 left in the third quarter, needing a comeback to keep its season alive. In high school, this is where Battle thrived.
Slowly enough, the Rhinos’ defense holds firm and the offense cuts the deficit. With less than three minutes left in the game, the Rhinos have one last chance to take the lead, a chance for Battle to lead his team to semi-pro glory.
The final drive stalls as time runs out with the Rhinos driving down the field, the comeback thwarted. Battle finishes the game completing 12 of 27 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown, but with three interceptions.
There’s a spot off Fishtrap Road, where a dirt road leads to a couple of ponds created by an old rock quarry, with a small stream trailing to Lewisville Lake. This is where Battle, AJ and their father occasionally go and fish.
Fishing has been passed down through the family like football has. Battle said fishing isn’t so much about actually catching fish as it is for him to sit and talk and reflect about what’s going on around him.
These days, things are starting to look a little better for him. On May 4, Battle Sr. took all the newspaper clippings of his son’s high school exploits — and a nightlight that lasted almost 15 years to help him read those clippings — walked out of prison and took a Greyhound bus back to Denton.
He knew exactly where he was headed.
When he saw Battle fully grown, Battle Sr. looked at him and said, “Boy, are you my son?”
The father had still imagined his children as he remembered them years ago. He couldn’t even recognize Battle or AJ.
In between all the catching up, Battle Sr. sat in awe of his son’s television, a standard television that could be found just about anywhere. Between the TV and all the cellphones, he was blown away.
Battle Sr. picked up a job as a delivery driver, while his son continues his second stint at D&S.
According to D&S area director Tammy Sweeney, Battle is well liked by most of staff because, in addition to having his home in order and everything running smoothly, he actually cares a lot about what he does.
Still, after child support and bills, Battle’s says he’s pretty broke. He doesn’t have enough cash to go down to Dallas to see Trey and Brady, his other son, who is 5 years old. If he spends the $20 or $30 he has left over on gas, there’s no way he’d make it through the week.
Trey, like Battle Jr. and Battle Sr., has shown symptoms of epilepsy, something his father and grandfather both outgrew as they got older.
Battle is still content with how everything played out. He doesn’t really try to remember all the accolades and awards, even though he has pretty much kept everything he’s won. The 2001 medal for the Smithson Valley game was lost by his one of his sons a long time ago.
When asked about if he is pleased with the way things turned out, he said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve been living this life, and I wouldn’t change it for nobody,” Battle said. “I wouldn’t trade it for nobody’s life. The stuff that I have been through, it has made me to where, like, 10, 20 years down the road, I have a bigger heart for people.”
His former coaches are in complete agreement. As long as they’re concerned, they’re happy if James is happy.
“I’m not disappointed in James,” Florence said. “People have a hard time understanding why he didn’t play, but if you’ve been in this business long enough, there’s a lot of great players and a lot of great students that go off to college, and for various reasons it doesn’t work out.
“I’m still very proud of James. He will always be one of my fondest kids that I’ve ever coached because of the way he carried himself. He’s made his mistakes like we all have in your lives, but I’m still very proud of James Battle.”
One day, Battle hopes his kids end up following the path of their father and their grandfather and what they left on the field. Battle pegs Brady for a linebacker because he’s really rough. Trey could end up being a finesse player, possibly being a wide receiver, or maybe a quarterback.
At Tammy Battle’s house, pictures of her grandchildren are by the door, inside her china cabinet and scattered throughout the home.
On her coffee table, sharing space with two golden Buddha figurines that are supposed to bring luck, are four pictures of Trey and Brady. One photo shows the children and their mother in a candid moment, with everybody laughing and King looking off to the right, out of the frame.
“He’s got two beautiful boys, I know that,” Florence said. “They’re going to make somebody a good coach one of these days.”
If that coach is lucky, maybe he’ll be fortunate enough to have another James Battle on his hands.
BEN BABY can be reached at 940-566-6869. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Battle well fought
Former Ryan quarterback James Battle was one of the top quarterbacks in the country in 2003. The following is a look back:
* Battle was ranked as the eighth-best dual QB in the Class of 2003 by Rivals.com
* Compiled a record of 42-4 as a starter at Ryan
* Named the 2002 Class 4A Offensive Player of the Year by the Texas Sports Writers Association
* Passed for 2,989 yards and 31 touchdowns as a senior