Rashod Bateman would snuggle into bed, clutch his Wilson football tight, and close his eyes. When he awoke each morning, the football would still be nestled in his arms, as if he were trying to protect it. That ball held plenty of dreams for the 7-year-old Bateman, like making it to college, or playing in the NFL. And holding it gave him a sense of peace—something that often seemed out of reach.
At that age, Bateman couldn’t understand why his mother, LaShonda Cromer, was suffering. Why she had to work 12-hour days to provide for him and his two brothers. Why his stepfather came home groggy and drunk. Loud. Violent. Bateman thought that if he opened the door to his mother and stepfather’s room, walked to the foot of the bed, and stood there, he could stop whatever nightmares were playing out in real time: his mom screaming for help, his stepfather yelling at her.
Maybe if he sees me, he won’t do this, Bateman thought.
But there was nothing the 7-year-old could do, and his stepfather didn’t stop.
So the boy would take his football and walk to the living room, perch himself a few inches from the TV, and rest his knees on the green carpet. Football always seemed to be on. There, he became entranced by the game—the players, the touchdowns, the celebrations, the joy.
He’d lose himself in the pixels, hoping the sounds of the catches and the cheers might drown out the screams.
Bateman still thinks about those nights—especially now that he is on the verge of becoming one of those players he saw on that screen.
The 6-foot, 190-pound receiver from the University of Minnesota is expected to be a first-round pick in this week’s NFL draft. In a class that contains such receiving talent as Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, and DeVonta Smith, Bateman is projected by many to be a mid-to-late-first-round steal who could immediately make a difference for an NFL team.
But Bateman was never supposed to be here. He spent much of his teen years as a skinny, undersized, no-star prospect out of Tifton, Georgia, an under-recruited area in the southern-central part of the state. Even now, after a stellar three years in Minnesota that were capped by All–Big Ten honors, he faces questions about his height, weight, and readiness for the professional game. But Bateman’s strength is his drive. He plays bigger and is more physical than he looks. He’s versatile, able to operate inside and outside, and can run every route asked of him. He has great hands, excellent body control—thanks to his years of playing high school basketball—and is capable of making the difficult seem routine.
Bateman alleviated some concerns over his size and speed at his pro day, running a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash, as well as recording a 36-inch vertical jump and a broad jump of 10 feet, 3 inches. Scouts noticed he was a bit lighter weight-wise than they might have anticipated, but he impressed throughout the day, including in positional drills. “He has an incredible skill set, and a talent set, and an amazing heart,” says P.J. Fleck, Minnesota’s head coach. “The more you tell him he can’t do things, the more Rashod Bateman’s going to have success.”
Bateman’s mom thinks often about what it would mean if her son made it. She remembers those terrifying nights, remembers Rashod trying to comfort her. He always seemed older than he was. “He was not going to leave Mama by herself,” says Cromer, who divorced Bateman’s stepfather when Rashod was 13, and is now remarried. “He always wanted to make sure Mama was OK.”
Back then, it didn’t seem like things would ever be OK. It seemed that his mom would continue to be depressed, overworked, and abused; that he and his brothers were doomed to a miserable life with their stepfather. And through it all, he was trying to play football. Still working and working—setting up cones in his backyard, drawing lines in the grass with chalk, running routes until it was dark outside. He was preparing for this moment. A moment when he could provide and care for his mother in ways he couldn’t fathom back then.
“She’s my inspiration,” Bateman says. “She’s where I get my work ethic from.”
When Bateman gets drafted, he, his mom, and his two older brothers, Monjharvis and Travian, all plan to get matching butterfly tattoos. Cromer has always loved butterflies. She loves how they begin their journey, not as vibrant creatures, but as caterpillars; that they became gorgeous through patience, through time. To her, butterflies signify transformation. The gift of being alive. “The butterfly will represent change for me and my family,” Cromer says, “and represent peace and hope.”
Some days they didn’t have running water. Some days the electricity would be turned off. Bateman remembers entering a dark home after practice unsure whether he’d be able to shower. He’d see kids with new cleats, new basketballs, new footballs, things he and his brothers couldn’t have. And it hurt. It hurt to move four or five times during his childhood because his family struggled to make ends meet. It hurt to watch his mother cry over bills she couldn’t pay, despite working at a factory during the nights and early mornings. “By the time I got up, it was time for me to go back to work,” Cromer says.
And most of all, it hurt to watch his stepfather descend into alcoholism and physically abuse his mother. “I never knew when the last time it was going to be before I saw my mom,” Bateman says. “I was scared of losing her, when they got into fights.”
His mom had always told him to believe in God, but at the time, he questioned his faith. “It was like, how could this happen if we believe in a higher power? If God loves us?” Bateman says.
Bateman was about 13 when his mother got a divorce and moved away from his stepdad. He was relieved. They all were. Things slowly started to get better. They went to church again as a family. And it felt comforting, like they were going through a restart. But things were still difficult. Cromer was now a single mother of three boys, working as a bookkeeper in the local school system in Tifton while getting her college degree. No matter how tired she was, though, Cromer always put her kids first.
“She made sure Rashod was signed up for football, staying focused,” Monjharvis says. “She told us: ‘There’s always a way. You gotta have an A plan, a B plan, a C plan. Don’t put your head down when something goes wrong. Get up, try again, figure out another way.’”
That’s what Bateman was trying to do with football. But the odds seemed stacked against him. He was a late bloomer who’d always had a stick-like figure. “He was the same size for I don’t know how long,” Travian says. “Coaches would always tell him, ‘You’re not big enough. You’re not fast enough.’”
And yet Bateman was sure of himself. He’d tell his mom: “I’m going to play professional football one day!”
She’d tell him: “You always need to believe in yourself. Any naysayers, just block them out. Anything you want in life, you have to push yourself to get it.”
So he pushed. He tried out for football his freshman and sophomore years at Tift County High School, making the third- and second-string teams, respectively, in those seasons. He was a solid but inexperienced backup, and there were plenty of players ahead of him who were physically stronger. But about midway through his sophomore year, he got his chance. The receiver ahead of him on the depth chart tore his ACL, so Bateman was thrown into the lineup.
“He saw his opportunity and took off with it,” says Ashley Anders, Bateman’s high school coach.
He played well that season and into his junior year, but he was still struggling to set himself apart.
“His junior-year film was really good,” Anders says, “but probably not the film a Division I program would look at and say, ‘Yeah, we gotta have that guy.’”
Bateman was mostly getting offers from smaller schools. He went to Georgia Southern’s camp the summer heading into his junior year and verbally committed to the program on the spot. He thought that would be the biggest offer he’d receive. He had no idea what the next year would bring.
One afternoon, during the spring of 2017, Anders called Maurice Linguist, then the defensive backs coach at Minnesota, about Bateman: “Hey, there’s a guy you need to come check out. He’s kind of being under-recruited. He’s a star player.”
Anders had known Linguist, who is now Michigan’s co-defensive coordinator, for some time. Linguist’s first full-time coaching job was at Valdosta State in 2008, and through that, he’d met a ton of local Georgia coaches, including Anders. The two kept in touch, and Linguist trusted Anders’s opinion. So a few days after receiving Anders’s call, Linguist traveled to Tifton.
Once there, Linguist was blown away by Bateman’s athleticism. But he didn’t immediately see him on the field—first came the basketball court. Bateman was dunking, dribbling the ball between his legs, shooting 3-pointers. “He looked like a Division I basketball player,” says Linguist. And he could have been: At that point, Bateman had better DI basketball offers than football offers.
Though Linguist hadn’t yet seen Bateman play football, he was sure of the things he liked: Bateman’s athleticism, body control, finesse, and skill. Everything about him seemed to have a natural flow. He was so springy—so gifted. His hand-eye coordination was impeccable. This guy, he’s just got it, Linquist thought to himself.
He called Fleck at the practice: “We found one.”
Bateman had never been to Minnesota before. He didn’t know much about the school. But he loved the staff, and soon after receiving an offer during his junior year, he decided to commit. The next year, though, Bateman had a magical senior season. He set school records for catches (83), receiving yards (1,539), and touchdowns (21). His receiving yards were the fifth most ever in the state of Georgia. Suddenly, top SEC programs began calling, texting, showing up in person. The attention was wild. Georgia’s Kirby Smart knocked on his door.
Even with all of the big-time offers and newfound celebrity, though, Bateman didn’t waver in his commitment to Minnesota. His mom says that they were excited when new coaches came around, but Bateman had already made up his mind. He had the confidence to turn down Georgia, his home state program, and opt for something different. New.
It happened to be his birthday when Fleck, Linquist, and the rest of the coaching staff came to Tifton for a home visit. It happened to be Fleck’s birthday, too. They celebrated with party hats and cake, and about 20 people from town showed up: friends, families, teachers, neighbors, all so proud to see a boy from Tifton about to play Division I ball.
Bateman kept his word. The schools that wanted him as a senior weren’t there from the beginning. Minnesota was.
“Minnesota was loyal to me, and I wanted to be loyal back to them,” Bateman says. “I felt like Minnesota was made for me.”
From his first season in maroon and gold, Bateman starred for the Golden Gophers. He ended his freshman campaign with 51 receptions for 704 yards and six touchdowns. After finishing his reps in practice, he’d push teammates out of the way so he could get more. He never felt satisfied.
“He was a guy you had to pull back,” Fleck says. “He would force himself into the lineup.”
He wanted to work his hardest—not just for his team, but for his family, who were often in attendance despite the long distance. Cromer missed only one game throughout Bateman’s entire collegiate career. Sometimes she would make the 19-hour car ride with a group of family members, splitting up the trip across two days.
Bateman usually calls Cromer before games, and he did so during his breakout 2019 season right before no. 17 Minnesota played no. 4 Penn State.
“I’m nervous,” he told her.
“Just go out there and have fun,” she said. “Just be you.”
He was phenomenal that day, finishing the 31-26 win with seven catches and 203 yards, including a 66-yard touchdown. After crossing the goal line, he drew a heart with the football clutched in his hand. For his love for Minnesota, the fans.
That season was the best of Bateman’s career, and also one of the toughest in his life. His uncle, Anthony, passed away in the middle of training camp. Anthony had helped coach Rashod in both basketball and football in high school, and even more importantly, acted as a kind of father figure. Anthony would take Bateman home everyday from practice and make sure that he was OK. Whatever Bateman needed, Anthony was there. He believed in Bateman’s potential. Told him he was more than capable of making it. Losing him was devastating.
“It’s kind of indescribable,” Bateman says. “I think it’s why I played the season I played. Every single day, every single play, was for him. That’s how I look at my career now: Everything is done in honor of him.”
Bateman kept thinking about one thing Anthony instilled in him: “Never give up on what you love.” That was especially applicable the following year, in 2020, as so much felt out of Bateman’s control.
In June, Bateman contracted COVID-19. For two and a half weeks, he was miserable and bed-ridden with fever, body aches, loss of taste and smell, cold sweats at night. It took a toll on his body. As someone with asthma, he began to worry about the long-term effects of the virus on his respiratory system.
With his health, the Gophers’ season, and his pro football dreams hanging in the balance, he wasn’t sure how to proceed. But after talking with his family and his coaches, he decided to opt out of the season. The Big Ten Conference wouldn’t officially cancel play for another two months, but it was a choice Bateman felt he had to make at the time. Eventually, though, when the conference announced it would return to play in October, Bateman changed his mind and opted back in, feeling he had a responsibility to his teammates.
He totaled 472 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns in five games. But then, after a COVID-19 outbreak within the team, he pondered his future once more.
There were other things consuming his mind in addition to the pandemic. He was still grieving the loss of his uncle. And he was processing the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. It haunted him, being so close to where Floyd died. As a Black man, Bateman at times felt afraid to walk outside.
“Just to know I could literally walk to the same spot he was murdered at, kind of hit home,” he says. “I feel like Minnesota will never be the same again.”
Coping was difficult, too, without any place to go or activity to do to distract himself. Much of the campus community was closed during the pandemic.
Bateman took time to meditate over the pressures of playing or not playing, the fears of long-term respiratory damage, the traumas of watching over and over as Black people were killed by police. He remembered what his mom always told him: “You have to take time for a mental break. You have to take time for you. Don’t let somebody push you so hard you don’t take time for that mental break.”
And so, he opted out again, missing the team’s final two games. He did what he felt was best.
“I take pride in my mental health,” Bateman says. “Making sure I have a clear headspace.”
Bateman knows he will have to prove himself again in the NFL. That despite everything he put out on the field in Minnesota, he’ll be stuck with yet another blank slate. Cromer does, too, and it makes her nervous. Though she always is a little, when it comes to her son. “I’m on pins and needles,” she says, “just like him.”
Whatever team he lands on, Bateman is just excited that his mom will be there, in the stands, cheering him on. He can’t imagine playing a game without her there. Doesn’t even want to contemplate what that would feel like.
He thinks about the man he wants to be. Not just for himself, but for her. He thinks about one day becoming a husband to someone, a father to someone. How the abuse he witnessed as a child shaped him. “It changed me. It opened my eyes,” Bateman says. It made him more empathetic, more vulnerable. More in tune with the feelings of those around him, especially women. Especially his mom.
When he thinks of her, his mind returns to butterflies. The way they grow and transform, quietly, beautifully, before spreading their wings.