Minnesota will miss Rashod Bateman. But he might miss Minnesota more
MINNEAPOLIS — Tifton, Georgia, is a town of a little more than 16,000 people located 180 miles south of Atlanta on Interstate 75. They love their history here, as evidenced by the Georgia Museum of Agriculture just west of Agrirama Lake.
It can also be perilous for a young, impressionable man with a potentially bright future if he can but only escape his surroundings. Tifton was once named “one of Georgia’s most dangerous cities.”
This is where Rashod Bateman comes from. Single-mother home. Raised in part by his godparents. Football as an avenue to a better life, the dream of so many youngsters in places like Tifton throughout the Deep South.
“I grew up in a rough neighborhood,” the — now former — Minnesota receiver said during a fall 2019 interview with the Big Ten Network’s Howard Griffith. “Not many people make it out.”
Bateman made it out. Now he’s leaving home again, this time hoping to avoid a different threat.
Wishing well❤️ pic.twitter.com/fxV1FI7r7o
— Rashod Bateman (@R_bateman2) August 4, 2020
The reigning Big Ten receiver of the year’s decision to skip his remaining eligibility and begin preparing for the 2021 NFL Draft is the latest development in a never-ending deluge of them as college football attempts to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. In just 2 seasons, Bateman went from redshirt freshman to Third-Team All-American, a poster child for coach P.J. Fleck and his program’s ascent from mediocrity to an 11-2 campaign last year.
Bateman speaks of the Twin Cities as a second home. He has spoken of plans to retire on Lake Minnetonka someday. He’s got “RTB” tattooed on his arm.
He called Tuesday’s choice “the hardest decision that I have ever had to make in my life,” in a social media video announcing his news. The post came after sharing the information with his teammates and Fleck on Tuesday morning.
“Minnesota, you have my heart forever.”
They won’t soon forget about the No. 12 receiver in school history around here, either.
— P.J. Fleck (@Coach_Fleck) August 4, 2020
“Rashod played a pivotal role in helping mold the University of Minnesota into an elite Big Ten program,” Fleck tweeted He was a joy to coach and has developed into an NFL caliber of player. We could not be more proud of Rashod’s historic and All-American career at Minnesota. He was a joy to coach and has developed into an NFL caliber of player. We could not be more proud of Rashod’s historic and All-American career at Minnesota.”
Said Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle in a Twitter statement of his own: “He helped change our program forever and believed in Coach Fleck, his Row the Boat culture and his staff. He believed in something bigger than himself and wanted to forge his own path.
“Rashod is a tremendous football player and an exceptional young man. I look forward to watching him take the next step in his career as he prepares for the 2021 NFL Draft.”
When the athletic director at a Power 5 institution talks about an individual athlete in that manner, you know it’s a loss that stings.
“He helped change our program forever.”
A statement from AD Mark Coyle. pic.twitter.com/hlWa6yVAvA
— Minnesota Football (@GopherFootball) August 4, 2020
In 26 games, Bateman recorded 111 catches (tied for 12th in school history), accumulated 1,923 yards (tied for 8th) and scored 17 touchdowns (tied for 5th).
On the field, he helped Minnesota to its best season in more than a century. Off it, he was a mild-mannered, thoughtful citizen who enjoyed the occasional cheat day at Raisin’ Canes and bumping Juice Wrld tunes from his car or apartment.
“Moving from a small town to a big city, I was very nervous,” Bateman said in his farewell video. “You all have accepted me and embraced me with open arms and have helped me find myself.”
But the risk of playing and contracting COVID-19 outweighed the benefits of trying to maintain his stock as Minnesota’s No. 1 receiver in the absence of Tyler Johnson, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Bateman wasn’t the first major-college player to opt out — Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley made a similar announcement Monday — and he likely won’t be the last. Tuesday night, reports surfaced that Penn State All-American Micah Parsons also is opting out.
Bateman’s decision comes at a time when more teams — including Rutgers, for a second time, and Northwestern — are quarantining players during what was supposed to be a lead-up to fall camp. The B1G has yet to announce its revised conference-only schedule. Commissioner Kevin Warren is on daily Zoom calls with players, coaches and administrators trying to figure out what to do. Minnesota moved its high school football season to spring on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Pac-12’s list of athlete demands is the strongest statement yet in a world where players have more and more power. Bateman is exercising his.
His departure changes the complexion of an offense that had returned 9 of 11 starters from last year. Junior Chris Autman-Bell becomes the Gophers’ apparent No. 1 receiver. Behind him, a slew of inexperience or newcomers helmed by Demetrius Douglas (14 catches, 157 yards last season), senior reserve Seth Green and tight ends Brevyn Spann-Ford, Jake Paulson and Bryce Witham will need to replace about 70 percent of Minnesota’s aerial production from a year ago.
That’s whenever next season finally gets here.
“Hard for anyone to fully comprehend the impact you have had on our program, University, and state, both on and off the field,” tweeted co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Matt Simon. “You have made MN a better place. Personally, I am grateful to have been around daily to watch you grow and learn. I love you like family, forever.”
The feeling is mutual. Bateman had a hand in 18 victories during his 2 seasons in action, including wins against top-10 opponents Penn State and Auburn last season.
But he might most remember a loss.
A year ago Monday, Anthony Bateman — an uncle, father figure and coach at Tift County High in Tifton for more than 20 years — died of a heart attack at age 52. According to 247Sports, Rashod learned of the tragedy while at the football facility and was immediately comforted by offensive line coach Brian Callahan, Simon and Fleck.
What’s his legacy? That will be answered in time. If the Gophers stay hot and Fleck doesn’t leave for greener pastures, Bateman will be looked at as one the pioneers. A 4-star recruit who believed in “Row the Boat” and came to a place that required him to buy his first winter jacket in hopes of developing into an NFL-caliber talent.
“I’m a big family guy,” Bateman told BTN last fall. “As soon as I entered the recruiting process, the first time I Facetimed [Fleck] and started talking to him, that’s just what I felt. You don’t really get that in a lot of coaches in this country. A lot of coaches just recruit you based off your ability, but … he really cares about you as a human being.
“That’s part of the reason why I’m here.”