Last June, Rashod Bateman got sick.
The Golden Gophers wideout wasn’t just under the weather. His body ached. He struggled to yank himself out of bed. Asthmatic since childhood, he was forced to use his inhaler for the first time in his life to try to breathe. Doctors had no answers for him, even with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis.
Head spinning from it all, he chose to opt out of the 2020 season. Around that time, NCAA programs were furiously debating the merits of playing football during a pandemic, and Bateman felt like he made the right call. He talked to his mom. He talked to his head coach, P.J. Fleck, and for a minute, everything started to feel somewhat normal.
Then the FBS machine kicked into gear. Conferences began to patch their schedules together. Bateman felt a responsibility to his teammates and opted back in. Again, life took on a familiar rhythm for a few months until there was a COVID-19 outbreak within the Minnesota football team in the fall. Not wanting to contract the virus a second time, still fearful of the sickness that knocked him out over the summer, he opted out again before the Gophers’ final two games.
“Kids all across the country were placed in tough positions to make tough decisions at an early age,” Bateman said. “It kind of has affected my career with me opting out. People questioning me. It was tough. And with social injustice, things like that, 2020 was a mess, man. That’s all I could say about that.”
While he did receive plenty of support, he also had to traverse constant feelings of remorse, fear and guilt.
“It was one time in my life where I had to be selfish about my life and my career,” he said. “I didn’t know how to feel about it. I feel like I let Minnesota down. I feel like I let my teammates down and I have to deal with that forever, just because of how the whole year was, you know?”
During the draft evaluation process, scouts, executives and members of the media often throw around heady terms like maturity, confidence and leadership—the kinds of concepts that take a willing human being a lifetime to round out and fully understand—and apply them to what happens in and around the football field with a bunch of teenagers and young adults. But in 2021, players like Bateman are redefining platitudes that were once banal and ultimately meaningless.
What does confidence mean to him now? To teams now? What does maturity mean when talking about a 20-year-old medically compromised football player trying to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life and the lives of hundreds of people in his immediate orbit? What if that shouldn’t be considered a weakness, but a strength, to question the eager flow of people willing to host a season in the middle of the pandemic?
What if that decision helps teams learn more of the good about Bateman, a player with confidence by the kegful and enough raw talent to upend the 2021 receiver rankings that seem to have cemented into a consensus?
“It’s just, the first big decision I ever had to make in my life was going to Minnesota,” he said. “But 2020, making these decisions, it made me a man. You gotta man up and deal with these things. Life is going to throw some hoops and circles at you, and you have to juggle it all. Everyone was juggling, juggling, juggling. And it prepared me for where I’m at now and where I’m going to go.”
The soul of the Bateman clan comes from LaShonda Cromer, a former high school point guard turned teacher turned mother of three boys, including Rashod.
Once, during a youth football game, a coach came up to her in the bleachers to tell her how impressed he was with her youngest son.
“Is his daddy outside with him all the time playing football?” the man asked.
“His momma is outside with him all the time playing football,” Cromer said. “Why?”
“Because the moves I’ve seen on him at his age, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
That’s the old floor-general in Cromer, now a bookkeeper at a local school. She raised the boys on her own while teaching in Tifton, Ga. She would come home every day and watch Rashod running all the plays he’d diagrammed from the weekend’s college football games. Even now as she watches her youngest leave college for the NFL, she is convinced she can still take down the whole family in a driveway game of H-O-R-S-E. (Rashod laughs and denies this but adds: “She’s a competitor now. She’s a fighter.”)
Her toughness could be seen in Rashod early on as he rose through the peewee football scene, hauling himself around like a grown man determined to make professional football a full-time occupation. Once, he dived for a loose ball in a ditch filled with broken glass. He popped up from the hole carrying the football, his leg gushing blood as he ran. He had no idea. Didn’t seem to care.
“That’s how tough he is,” his mother said. “His mind was just on getting into that ditch and getting that football out.”
That was the same player dragging hapless defensive backs up and down the field during a chaotic 2020 season when he took on more than 30% of the Gophers’ target share on offense (in the five games he played), working more than 15 unique route concepts and catching more than 80% of the balls thrown his way—despite the fact that he was privately clawing to get himself into a place physically that resembled the breakout star of 2019.
Anyone who hasn’t tried to train following a bout with COVID-19 may want to reserve judgment. The virus’s far-ranging effects on the human body and mind won’t be known for decades, but there are numerous cases of high-profile athletes struggling to regain their form. Runners searching for their endurance. Power athletes trying to recall their muscular strength.
While Bateman said he feels like he’s fully recovered now, this past football season was a clinic in gutting through it, putting his body through something it may not have been prepared to take on.
“He’s a very hard worker. He’s dedicated to whatever he does,” Cromer said.
Bateman said he harbors no resentment for the way everything went. At his pro day workout in Minnesota, during an interview with NFL Network, he seemed like a person still stating his case to NFL teams despite being a surefire first-round pick a year ago. The only things that changed were things completely out of his control, including a virus that has affected almost everyone globally in one way or another. So he fell back on what he knew from his mom, the ability to work through anything.
“I got my work ethic from my mom, my love from my mom,” Bateman said. “She always worked. She always found a way to make sure everyone was happy and had what they needed before herself. I think I love that about myself, too. I get that from her.”
If most people in the draft analysis business keep talking about all the other top receiver prospects in this class—Ja'Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith—it’s just fine with Bateman. Approaching the end of the draft process, he knows more about himself than anyone could speculate from a few Zoom interviews.
“I’m very confident in my abilities and what I can do on and off the field,” he said. “At the same time, I don’t get too much caught up in that because I don’t make those decisions. I don’t make the ratings. I don’t get caught up in that stuff because it’s not who I am. But whoever drafts me is going to get the best of me and I’m going to continue to be Rashod.”
He thought he showed as much during both an EXOS pro day and Minnesota’s pro day, where, amid questions about his speed, he ran a pair of sub-4.4 40-yard dashes. After the first, Bateman tweeted: “Per Source: Bateman ran a 4.37 hand time and a 4.39 laser at the Exos combine. *Rashod Bateman is not slow,” followed by an emoji of a person wearing sunglasses.
“It felt good, but at the same time, I was just proving myself right. I had no idea why everyone was questioning my speed, but at the end of the day, I got a job to do and it really wasn’t about anyone else; it was about me competing against myself,” he said.
Cromer, seeing her confidence passed down, approved.
Call it another strange wrinkle in the draft scouting process. Listening to Bateman talk, he sounds like someone at peace with a process that might turn the lot of us inside out. Questions about ability are one thing. Questions about commitment, both to one’s own personal health and to a team amidst a pandemic, are another.
But that seems to be all wrapped up into the expectations now. Bateman knows dealing with it has made him stronger. What will a team steeped in the process think?
He said he’s likely to spend draft night back home in Georgia, waiting to find out. Cromer will cater his favorites, Zaxby’s and a local wing spot in Tifton called Wing Addiction.
Whatever scouts may think of the tape from his abbreviated year or his answers to their probing questions, whenever his name might be called by the commissioner, those around him in that room will know the truth about the receiver one NFL team will be getting—the player who clawed his way here and his source of inherited strength by his side.
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