By Joe Rutter
Sunday, August 6, 2006
Quarterback Charlie Batch reported to Steelers training camp and, much to his surprise, immediately got demoted.
Not to third string on the depth chart. To second string on linebacker Larry Foote's roommate list.
After bunking with Foote for the past three training camps, Batch discovered he'd been displaced in favor of linebacker James Harrison.
"He kicked me out," said Batch, who now rooms with running back Willie Parker.
Asked for his version, Foote said his former roomie has the story backward.
"Charlie Batch is lying," he said. "He's trying to make my character look bad. He's lying, he's lying, he's lying."
It's Foote's contention that Batch jilted him. He said Batch tried, but failed, to secure a single room in the dorms at St. Vincent College's Rooney Hall.
"Now, he's trying to blame it on me," Foote said, shaking his head. "Charlie bought the TV, the cable box with all the channels, and his girlfriend brings brownies and blueberry muffins.
"Why would I want to get rid of him? He was the perfect roommate."
The search for the perfect roommate at training camp cannot be underestimated.
Grown men, some with millions of dollars in the bank and mansions to call home, must leave their lavish lifestyles behind and check their egos at the dorm during the four weeks they spend in Latrobe.
Unless a Steelers player has enough tenure, such as 16-year vet Chris Gardocki, to qualify for his own room, he must double up in the campus dormitory. Much like a typical college dorm, the rooms have twin beds, a dresser, desk, closet and little else in the way of opulence.
"The rooms are awfully small," said former Steelers offensive lineman Craig Wolfley. "They were built for guys half your size and half your weight."
Players can rent bigger beds -- at the expense of reducing what little free space exists in the room. Tackle Marvel Smith spent his first six training camps squeezing his 6-foot-5, 321-pound frame onto a twin bed because "that's what part of being in camp is all about."
This year, he upgraded to a bigger model.
"I feel like I'm getting older, so I had to get that queen-sized bed."
Players must supply their own television, refrigerator and stereo. Not that they should complain about that.
"At least they have air conditioning," said Wolfey, who didn't enjoy such luxury when he trained at St. Vincent from 1980-89. "When I played, the room was like a sauna."
In those days, players were housed at St. Bonaventure Hall, which sits on the adjoining hillside from the newer Rooney Hall.
"When you're the young buck, they'd put you in the front of the hall and it just heated the place up during the day," Wolfley said. "We also had no cable TV, so you had to find your own entertainment, like playing pranks on each other."
These days, the rooms are wired for cable and have an Ethernet port for Internet access.
"These guys have it so much better," Wolfey said. "They have therapeutic mattresses, they bring in plasma screen TVs, and they've got snacks in the building. When I was here, if you wanted a snack, you had to run out to Wendy's and get back before curfew."
The coaching staff determines room assignments. Rookies usually are paired with other rookies or players with limited NFL experience. An exception is first-round draft pick Santonio Holmes, whose offseason brushes with the law led the Steelers to place him with veteran wide receiver Quincy Morgan.
Teammates often are matched based on the positions they play. That way, they can study the same pages of the playbook together. Players also can request roommates. Sometimes, a perfect match is found. Wide receiver Hines Ward and cornerback Deshea Townsend are rooming together for the ninth consecutive camp.
"This year, they tried to give us our own rooms," Townsend said. "We just said, nah, let's keep the tradition going. We didn't want to change it up."
Ward considers himself fortunate to be paired with Townsend for so long. Products of the Southeastern Conference in college, Ward and Townsend were familiar with each other upon attending their first minicamp in 1998. A friendship was formed, and they asked to be roommates that summer.
"We've been in Room 302 ever since," Ward said. "I couldn't imagine living with anybody else. If Deshea wasn't here, I'd probably have my own room. He and I are just natural together."
Wolfley spent each of his 10 training camps rooming with fellow offensive lineman Tunch Ilkin. They remain best friends 26 years after first setting foot at St. Vincent, yet they had to overcome a rocky start.
"Tunch sucked the paint off the wall in camp," Wolfley said. "The first night, I remember sitting up late and trying to get some sleep and he's just snoring away. All of a sudden he sits up, rips off a couple of sentences in Turkish, then lays back down again.
"You think I slept that night? I'm thinking I'm rooming with a homicidal maniac."
Often, Steelers players have to ride the roommate carousel before hitting the jackpot. Guard Alan Faneca went through a handful of roommates, then found a match with quarterback Tommy Maddox. With Maddox gone, Faneca is by himself in a self-proclaimed "suite" that abuts Gardocki's room.
"You have to feel each other out, see how it's going, whether you have things in common," Faneca said. "It's like getting a new roommate in college."
Batch, who has a sinus condition, prefers a roommate who doesn't blast the air conditioning.
"When he likes it cold, I have to wait for him to fall asleep and then turn down the AC a bit, so I can enjoy the heat," he said.
When Gardocki was the punter in Indianapolis, he lived with kickers Cary Blanchard and Mike Vanderjagt. When he joined Cleveland in 1999, Gardocki didn't have a roommate because the Browns housed their players in a hotel.
He lost those spoils in 2004 when he joined the Steelers. Gardocki was paired with long snapper Mike Schneck for two summers. This camp, with Schneck in Buffalo, Gardocki was solo again.
"I've been pretty fortunate," he said. "I've always had good roommates."
Good vs. bad
What makes a good roommate?
"Somebody you get along with and can hang out with when you're not around football," Faneca said. "It helps if you like playing video games or watch the same TV shows. You spend a lot of time with your roommate, and it helps a lot if you get along."
Deciphering a bad roommate typically boils down to two things:
• Does he play the TV too loud at night?
• Does he, in Wolfley's words, suck the paint off the walls?
"The worst thing is rooming with somebody who snores," Smith said. "In camp, everybody is tired from the hot days, and you're going to snore a little bit, but you don't want to snore too much."
Smith outed guard Kendall Simmons, his second-year camp roommate, as an excessive snorer.
"I try to get to sleep before he does," Smith said.
A few years ago, Faneca had a problem with some early-rising rookies who lived in an adjoining room.
"They took showers early in the morning, and the showers in this place hum through the cinder block walls," he said. "I had to set them straight."
Privacy, of lack thereof, can be an issue, one that goes beyond sharing a bathroom.
"When you make phone calls to your family or want to be alone, that's when it's nice to have your own room," Gardocki said.
For the players who live together, changing roommates can be a risky proposition. Just ask Foote, who may be regretting having Harrison as Batch's replacement.
Harrison, after all, is known for his nasty disposition.
"He's too hyper, he wants to fight and wrestle all night," Foote said. "I'd put him in his place, but he's bigger than me and stronger than me."
Joe Rutter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
I can relate to this, reminded me of Barracks life in the Army. Same situations.