The hardest season: Tra Battle transitions from football, death of UGA teammates
Their dorm room was a haven, Tra Battle would come to realize. Away from the attention that comes from being a UGA football player, Tra Battle could relax and bond with his roommate, Paul Oliver.
They watched movies, talked about life, ate a bunch of junk food. It was their junior year of college, and by that point it wasn’t about going out and partying. They were homebodies who invited people into their room, or just talked themselves.
“We just shared so many things,” Battle said. “Good and bad memories in the room.”
By the time the year was up, Oliver had a girlfriend, who would become his wife, and later his widow.
Battle, needing a roommate, moved in with another teammate and close friend, someone more outgoing, but someone who also would go on to be an important figure in his life.
Quentin Moses was more outgoing than Oliver, and the cottage-style place he shared with Battle became a social center. Moses would host barbecues for teammates and classmates, and then just the neighborhood.
Battle bought the grill, and then Moses took it over. He became known as The Grillmaster, and years later it was how people would remember Quentin Moses the day after he died.
There have been only two Georgia football players who played this century who are known to have died. Tra Battle, roommate, close friend and teammate to both, was left reeling. His journey since been emotional and arduous.
“I suppressed a lot of what I was feeling,” Battle said. “I think it’s my conditioning as a football player. Show no pain. Be stoic. But it proved to be a roadblock to healing.”
The night of pizza and crying
Three years ago, for a story on how the Paul Oliver Network started, Mark Richt told a story of the night after Oliver’s death the previous year:
“I was working late, and my cell phone rang. It was one of P.O’s teammates, and he was in a bad place. I mean a really bad place. I asked him: Where in the hell are you? OK. You know where my house is? Be there in 20 minutes.”
Richt’s understanding was the person was in deep distress and contemplating the end. The player came to Richt’s house, as did team chaplain Thomas Settles, who ordered pizza. The three cried together. They disclosed personal things and experiences, and comforted each other. They called in other former teammates. And the player left in a better place.
Richt understandably declined to say back then which ex-player it was. But three years later, as Battle recounted his own experience after Oliver’s death, it becomes clear that the player Richt met with that night was Battle.
“After riding around awhile I just finally broke down and called Coach Richt, and he asked me to come over to his place. We just sat there, and he just really comforted me,” Battle said. “We just held each other up.”
But it wasn’t quite over. Over time, like with anything, the wound healed, but there was still scarring, there were still reminders. Scroll by his name on your phone, for instance. Battle sought refuge in counseling.
“Through what you learn with life experiences, you do what you can to overcome,” Battle said. “To press through it.”
He had no idea he would have to do it all over again.
The good times
Paul Oliver was a Parade All-American when he arrived at Georgia, Battle was a walk-on that same year, and reveled in comparing himself not only with Oliver but Sean Jones, another highly touted safety. Battle wanted to show he belonged on the team, and had a chip against the big-name guys.
As time went on, however, Battle built a respect for Oliver, who was dealing with a knee injury at the start of his Georgia career.
“Paul was always almost stoic, and just diligent,” Battle said. “He always worked. When we were out on the field he was putting in just as much work in the training room.”
Oliver redshirted as a freshman, then saw his playing increase over the next few seasons. He would finish his Georgia career with 7 interceptions, 3 sacks and 94 tackles, though arguably his lasting legacy at UGA would come nearly a decade later.
Battle made the team and earned a scholarship, becoming one of the most successful walk-ons in the Mark Richt era. He was second-team All-SEC and third-team All-American as a senior.
They became roommates because of their similar position, but their personalities also meshed. Oliver was genuine and didn’t sugarcoat things. Battle liked that. There didn’t seem to be any signs of the darkness Oliver would feel later in life.
There may, Battle thinks now, have been the seeds of the CTE that would be diagnosed in Oliver after his death.
But back then football was the ticket. It was the source of glory, past and future. It was their identity.
Battle moved in with Moses for his senior year. A magnet for friends, Moses kept inviting in new roommates. First it was Tyson Browning, the former Georgia RB/WR who had come back from playing in Canada. Then it was another friend, a non-football player who Moses only called Juice.
“Q and I were the same, that we always gave what we could,” Battle said.
Battle finally moved out to make room when Moses invited in a fifth person, who also had a wife and newborn.
It was Xavier Godard, a former Western Carolina football player who in 2007 would die in a drowning accident, leaving a wife, Andria, and infant daughter, Jasmine. They would end up playing a huge role, and a tragic one, in Moses’ life.
When the season ended, Moses was drafted by Oakland, and Battle went to San Diego, where he would reunite with an old friend.
Life in the NFL
Battle was undrafted after his senior year, so once again he had to prove himself by making a team, and once again he did. The San Diego Chargers signed him, and after a few months Battle was called into the office of the defensive coordinator. He wanted to talk to him about Paul Oliver.
Oliver had left Georgia early because of academic issues, a problem with a class, and entered the 2007 supplemental draft. So the Chargers plugged Battle for background information. They knew they had been roommates, so they asked how Oliver was personally and as a teammate, and of course Battle went to bat for him.
The day of the supplemental draft, Battle recalls driving down I-285 and calling Oliver.
“Did you get drafted?” Battle said.
“Man, you didn’t know?” Oliver said. “I’m coming to San Diego!”
The Chargers had used a fourth-round pick on his once-again teammate. Battle thinks he almost had a wreck, swerving in excitement.
The nice story would be that they were roommates again, just like their junior year on UGA’s East Campus. But after both made the Chargers, they stepped back and decided they made enough money, they didn’t have to share rent.
But they still got apartments in the same complex, near a driving range. Battle would walk over to Oliver’s house and they would hang out, and Oliver would cook spaghetti, his specialty.
“I really think that’s the only thing he could cook,” Battle said.
They spent nearly two full years there. The Chargers rookies would also hang out, going to somebody’s house or going out bowling or whatever.
Battle left the Chargers late in the 2008 season, joining the Dallas Cowboys, then spent 2009 with the Detroit Lions. That marked the end of his NFL career. Oliver stayed in San Diego from 2007-10, then played in New Orleans and went back to San Diego in 2011. That marked the end of his career.
“After 20-plus years of your life you have identified, when you go to sleep and you wake up, throughout your day and when you go back to sleep, as this athlete,” Battle said.
“When it’s done, you’ve had to create a new identity. You have to do something after all of this time that you have devoted to your craft, to your profession. And I think the biggest challenge for former athletes is that transitioning period.”
Days of shock
It was early in the morning of Sept. 25, 2013, when Battle got the call. He was walking down the stairs at his Athens home when the phone rang.
He doesn’t remember whether it was Thomas Flowers or Jason Johnson who called him. He does remember what the person on the other end said.
Oliver had shot himself in his Atlanta-area home. Family and friends would say he was dealing with CTE, and depressed over the end of his football career.
Battle knelt down on the stairs and sat. He doesn’t know how long he stayed there. He doesn’t remember whether he had anywhere he was supposed to be that day.
All he knows is he got in his car and started driving. He met that night with Richt and Settles, and went through counseling. But over the course of the next few years he still struggled. He had trouble even talking about things with his wife Luisa.
“I was really shut off. Closed off,” Battle said. “And with time I began to open up and let them in and be a part of the process. But initially I was real shut off.”
Sometime last year, Battle stopped at a Racetrack gas station by the Georgia mall in Buford. He looked up and saw his old friend: Quentin.
They hugged, and then caught up. They talked about careers, life, relationships, friends and old times. They exchanged their new numbers.
“We probably sat there about an hour and a half, just catching up,” Battle said.
It would turn out to be the last in-depth conversation the two would have.
On Feb. 13 of this year, Battle was at work at Piedmont Athens Regional Hospital, where he is an anesthesia technician. He had just sat down to drink some water. The television was on in the hospital, WSB Channel 2, and there was a breaking news bulletin: A fatal house fire in Monroe. It didn’t mention names.
“My exact words: I’m tired of hearing all this tragedy on the news,” Battle said. “And I turned the television off, and I walked out of the break room and went back to work.”
After Oliver’s death, former Georgia players developed a group text message. That’s how word spread about Moses, and Battle saw the messages when he stopped for a break.
Moses had died in that fire, along with Andria and Jasmine Godard.
“I probably didn’t speak two words the rest of the day. Just in a shell, working,” he said.
He went to the funeral a few days later. He had been around death plenty of times, through his job, and had become desensitized to it. But this was different.
“At the funeral I felt hollow,” Battle said. “I really can’t explain it. It’s almost like you disappear, and you go through the emotions. Because of what I learned at the time of grief, just with my personal experience with grief, is for me it’s so infrequent and so rare, that you really don’t know how to handle it.”
Being a brick in life
During their playing careers, each always had something to overcome. For Oliver, it was injuries. For Moses, it was coming after David Pollack. And for Battle, it was being a walk-on.
They each succeeded. But then came life after football.
Battle still wonders how much CTE played into Oliver’s mental state, and whether the same symptoms exist in him. Through his work at the hospital, he’s become conditioned to trust the doctors who say CTE is real. He’s also up front about seeking help through therapy, and that it helped him.
Initially, Battle had the usual thoughts that come with survivor’s guilt: Why is he the one still here? But through time and counseling he came to the point where he knew he had a lot of people to be responsible for, plenty more to do.
“In rationalizing death and grief, you do realize that the people who are no longer with us wouldn’t want you to meet them this soon,” Battle said.
Jon Fabris, the former Georgia defensive assistant, had a saying that stuck with Battle: “Every man a brick.” So a brick by itself is nothing. It’s just a piece of clay. But when you get every member of the team mortared together, you can build skyscrapers, monuments, etc.
“The things that were important to Q-Moses, from everyone that was close to him, you still have to continue that body of work,” Battle said. “For things that were important to P.O., in accountability to him, you have to continue that body of work. So the things that were important to those individuals, they have to become important to you.”
And so he thinks about the bricks, and being accountable to them. And that meant finding an identity. Who is Tra Battle, if he’s not Tra Battle the former Georgia and NFL player?
He’s the family man: Tra Battle and his wife Luisa have four children. Tre, 12, Tayte, 10, Natalie, 8, and Emmanuel, 6. He loves and cares for them all very much, and that also means helping support them. Financially and mentally.
“We have different seasons,” Battle said, motioning with one hand. “We have seasons of transition. We have seasons of loss. We have seasons of triumph and victories. I think in order to truly succeed in life is dependent on how you truly transition in those seasons.”
Then Tra Battle smiles. This transition season, it seems, is going well.