By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 5, 2009
In spring 2007, D'Anthony Batiste returned to Cajun country and told a wild tale that even Louisiana's most colorful backwater storytellers wouldn't dare spice up. At 6 feet 4 and 314 pounds, he stood as a giant in front of the roomful of cadets enrolled in the Acadiana Law Enforcement Training Academy in Lafayette, La.
I was once just like you, he told them.
And the story that unfolded for the young cadets -- a group still learning how to fire a gun and work a police beat -- was improbable from start to finish.
"I loved playing football. . . . On draft day, my phone never rang. . . . The NFL didn't want me . . . neither did Canada . . . so I worked in the jail . . . then the sheriff's office. . . . I was there for Katrina . . . but I never gave up on my dream . . . it always came back to football for me."
Around the academy office in Lafayette, they still talk often about Batiste, whom they call "D" or "Big D." They'd never produced an officer quite like him. For starters, none of the others was as big; few as menacing, fewer as promising. And certainly none left the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office for the NFL.
Just 3 1/2 years removed from his career as a sheriff's deputy, Batiste is a reserve offensive lineman for the Washington Redskins. The Louisiana native will take the field Sunday to face the New Orleans Saints -- a team that, like Batiste, is a survivor of Hurricane Katrina and her merciless aftermath -- as one of the most unlikely players in the league.
Growing up in Marksville, La., which has a population of less than 10,000, Batiste played tight end and defensive end in high school.
"He had nothing given to him," said Benny Brouillette, his coach at Marksville High. "But he knew if you have a dream, you have to go with it. He never gave up believing in himself."
Batiste wasn't on the radar of the bigger division I schools but accepted a scholarship to Louisiana-Lafayette. He was recruited as a tight end but injuries on the offensive line made him the Ragin' Cajuns' starting left guard just three games into his freshman season.
Mostly because he enjoyed shows like "Cops" and police dramas, Batiste was a criminal justice major. But as college progressed, he began envisioning a football career. He earned second-team All-Sun Belt honors as a senior and spent the spring of 2004 preparing for the NFL draft.
But Batiste's interest in the NFL was unrequited. He wasn't invited to the NFL scouting combine, wasn't flown into NFL cities for private workouts and visited with just a handful of scouts during the school's pro day.
He could do nothing but hold his breath the weekend of the draft.
Watching with his former high school teammate, Chad Lavalais, a defensive tackle at LSU, Batiste kept waiting for the phone to ring. Atlanta selected Lavalais in the fifth round, but Batiste's name was never called. In the days that followed, teams weren't calling to discuss tryouts or a free agent contract, either.
Three weeks before the draft, Batiste's girlfriend gave birth to twins, and suddenly he had no way to take care of his young family. As Batiste says it, "I put all my eggs in the NFL basket."
"I was just stunned," he said. "I'd worked so hard. I had the twins. I kept thinking, 'This just has to work out.' It was like the weight of the world was on my shoulders."Stormy episodes
Batiste plopped down $80 for a failed tryout with a Canadian Football League team, and in June signed up to play for Bossier-Shreveport BattleWings in the now-defunct Arena Football League's developmental outfit. Batiste earned $250 for a win, $200 for a loss and pocketed extra cash by doing odd jobs for the team owner's medical-billing business.
After the season, he returned to Lafayette, working security for nightclubs and doing day labor alongside other down-on-their-luck Louisiana residents.
Finally the sheriff's office processed his application and he was hired as a corrections officer at the jail, earning $430 a week. Armed with just a badge and a canister of mace, "I had to rely mostly on my people skills," he said.
Batiste recalls an overtime shift when two pods -- about 200 inmates -- were dining.
"They were just hysterical," he said. "Everyone was mad."
The inmates were convinced the rice they were eating had spoiled. So they were calling, 'Big D, come over here.' "
Batiste got between the other officers and the inmates, hearing out the complaints and finally pleading with the kitchen staff to cook more rice and quell the uprising.
"It was wild because they were close to calling [the] SWAT team in there," Batiste said. "And it was something so simple. They just needed someone to listen."
Football was never far from his thoughts. In Lafayette, no one needs an excuse to talk about the Saints, and on Sundays, Batiste would watch NFL games on television. "I just knew I was good enough," he said.
In spring 2005, Batiste tried out for three more CFL teams -- again at $80 per workout -- and again didn't make the cut. In May, he was accepted into Acadiana Law Enforcement Training Academy, the first step to becoming a sheriff's deputy.
The academy graduates about 130 cadets each year, and today, instructors recall Batiste as one of the best they've seen. Physically, he was a beast, but he was also earnest, cared about the law and spent time helping fellow cadets.
"I remember taking him to lunch one day," said Lt. Kenny Duhon, the academy's assistant director for training. "And he kept talking about wanting to be out on patrol. So he climbs in the front seat of my Crown Victoria, and he filled that whole front seat. I said, 'If this is going to be your office every day, you better figure out a way to make it comfortable.' "
Instructors noticed it right away: Batiste was a natural police officer.
"Even then, though, you could tell in his eyes, he'd light up when he talked about football," said Toby Trosclair, a training specialist.
After graduating from the 10-week course, Batiste's family and friends were proud. "They all thought I'd finally made it," he said. " 'Hey, let's go out to eat to celebrate.' I was like, 'Okay.' But I didn't feel like I made it. I was happy to have a job, but I was still thinking about football."
With a badge and a Glock .45-caliber handgun, Batiste became a sheriff's deputy just a couple of week's before Hurricane Katrina bowled through the Gulf Coast. While Lafayette was spared the brunt of the storm, its population swelled with New Orleans evacuees.
Batiste would patrol makeshift neighborhoods of white FEMA trailers. He worked around the clock, stationed at the Cajundome with thousands of evacuees, watching over New Orleans inmates that were transported to Angola State Penitentiary and working security at a local hospital.
As the storm crashed down on New Orleans, a bus carrying 50 evacuees flipped near Lafayette, killing one and injuring 12. Batiste met the emergency helicopter on the roof of Lafayette General.
"I can still see it. Half of his skull was severed off. I could see his brain," Batiste said of one victim, "and his eyes -- they were looking back at me."
The Cajundome, a 12,000-seat arena that served as a temporary home to 17,000 evacuees in the weeks and months that followed Hurricane Katrina, was "constant chaos," he said.
"All these people getting off the buses, they didn't know where the rest of their family was. And they brought with them drugs, knives, cocaine," Batiste said. "We had a lot of people displaced, bused all the way to Lafayette -- they escaped the storm but then we had no choice but to handcuff them. We had to protect all the other people.
"Every day, I just tried to imagine what it's like to be ejected from something you've known your whole life as home. Leaving your own bed, your high school trophies, baby clothes, all the things that were important to you. What I took from the whole situation, in some instances it brought out the worst in people, but it also brought the best in people, too. When I think back to that time, I think about all the good I saw from people."
A 'bittersweet' departure
With three commendations in less than a year, Batiste thought he was on the fast track to making detective. But before long, he again felt the familiar spring itch. Batiste had stockpiled some vacation time and used it to get back in football shape, training in Orlando with Tom Shaw, a respected trainer and coach who prepares dozens of prospects annually for the NFL draft.
Batiste flew to Los Angeles to work out for a CFL team, then to Houston to try out for another. He thought he finally had a shot with Ottawa, but the franchise disbanded just days after his workout. There was another tryout -- another $80 -- in nearby Monroe, and Batiste vowed that it would be his last.
"I woke up that morning, thinking, 'Why am I putting myself through this again? I got a job. I'm paying the bills. I could be detective soon. Why am I doing this?' " Batiste said. "I was at [a] crossroads. I was tired of hearing no. But for some reason, I got out of bed and drove 2 1/2 hours to Monroe."
The Edmonton Eskimos offered him a contract and within a couple of weeks, he was in Canada, playing organized football for the first time since college. But after just two preseason games, the Eskimos released Batiste, which turned out to be a blessing of sorts.
A scout for the Dallas Cowboys had watched Edmonton's practices. Within days, Batiste was in Dallas for a tryout. He signed an NFL contract by the end of the day.
"Sometimes people shut the front door on your face," Batiste said. "Sometimes you got to come in through the back door, you got to find your own way in. I couldn't get in through the front, but I found that back door and kicked it open."
As he embarked on a football career, Batiste had to finally quit the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office.
"It was bittersweet for us," said Keith Kellar, the academy's training coordinator. "We were all thrilled for him going to the NFL. But we knew he would've been a great asset for us in the community, too."
Batiste didn't make the Cowboys' 53-man roster in 2006, but Dallas kept him on the practice squad until the Carolina Panthers signed him onto their active roster later in the season.
Following the season, Batiste returned to Lafayette, visiting his old friends and colleagues at the sheriff's department. They asked him to recount his journey for the new class of cadets. It wasn't the typical cop story, no more than it was a familiar NFL tale.
Batiste started four games for Atlanta in 2007 but spent last season on the Falcons' practice squad until the Redskins signed him to their 53-man roster late in the year.
He's now battling for playing time on an injury-riddled offensive line for a struggling 3-8 Washington team. Batiste, 27, who once earned $250 per victory, is set to make $535,000 this year. He has no guarantees beyond this season.
"Every day I wake up and look in the mirror and I'm humbled," he said. "I know what it's like to work a regular 9-to-5 job versus a guy drafted straight into the NFL, big bonus, big contract, doesn't know anything but this lifestyle. I know what it's like to live paycheck to paycheck, you know. And I know the margin between being in the NFL and being out of the NFL is so small. You can't get comfortable with yourself. You can't be satisfied. You got to keep trying."