MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - Rashod Bateman had the highlight of the night Thursday with a one-handed grab on a 42-yard touchdown pass from Tanner Morgan.
The Gophers started the season by avoiding a stunning upset with a 28-21 win over South Dakota State at TCF Bank Stadium in front of more than 49,000 fans. The play might not have happened, coach PJ Fleck said, if it weren’t for something that had nothing to do with football.
Bateman's uncle died two weeks ago, and he had to leave fall camp to be with family in Georgia for funeral services. He returned to Gophers practice days later, grieved over his uncle with teammates, coaches and team staff, and honored him by his play on the field. The University of Minnesota utilizes mental health services to allow players to deal with loss in whatever way they need.
“Probably the closest father figure he has in his life. To watch him go through all that, go back home, come back, go through grief, bounce back, have some tough days at practice. Open up and talk about it, we want our men to do that. That is why mental health is so important,” Fleck said. “Because that young man can make a catch like that and play like he did today, losing the biggest male figure in his life two weeks ago and play like that, that’s what it’s all about.”
Bateman finished the night with five catches for 132 yards and the touchdown that will be seen around the country on social media, if not ESPN. He took advantage of the Jackrabbits’ defense keying in on senior star Tyler Johnson, who finished with three catches for 28 yards.
He accounted for 132 of Minnesota’s 176 passing yards, and nearly half of the total offense, which managed 308 yards. Morgan has a new go-to receiver when opponents try to lock down Johnson. Five of Morgan's 13 completions went to the sophomore sensation.
“He just made a lot of elite plays and showed everybody how explosive he is. I’m just blessed to have 13 out there,” Morgan said.
Bateman is just scratching the surface of his potential. As a freshman last year, he set Gophers records for freshmen with 51 catches and 704 yards. His six touchdowns were second-most by a freshman.
His focus is on making plays for his team, and honoring his family.
“I lost my uncle, he was like a father figure to me. Tonight, just go out there and play for him. It was pretty special. I know he’s always there with me, so I just gotta continue to ball for him,” Bateman said.
Thursday’s touchdown catch was his best impression of NFL star Odell Beckham Jr. There’s probably more where that came from.
“I don’t know, all I can say is God was with me on that one,” Bateman said.
Fleck sees a lot more in Bateman than a great football player and a great athlete. He turned down offers from SEC schools and has a tattoo of a “Row the Boat” logo.
He sees a special human being.
“The catch was beautiful, but what I saw was the process leading up to that catch. And when he caught it, that’s Rashod responding to adversity. That’s what he does, that’s why he picked Minnesota. He’s a special player, and you saw that tonight.”