'I can't even put it into words': Rashod Bateman excited to be back with Gophers

Gophers star WR Rashod Bateman talked Monday about battling COVID-19 earlier this summer and returning to the football program after previously opting out of the season.

Rashod Bateman never wanted to leave the University of Minnesota football program in the first place.

After a rollercoaster few months of experiencing COVID-19 himself earlier this summer and starting to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft, now he doesn’t have to. Bateman learned last week the NCAA granted him a waiver to be eligible for the 2020 fall season after he originally opted out in August due to health concerns. At the time, the Big Ten wasn't playing football and didn't have protocols in place to keep student-athletes safe from COVID-19.

He got the chance to tell his teammates after a practice last week he was officially back. There was plenty of celebration, and lots of smiles.

He’ll be on the field at TCF Bank Stadium on Oct. 24 when the Gophers host Michigan.

“I can’t even put it into words. It was just so much excitement, it was definitely a big relief personally for me. But just being around my teammates and just seeing how happy they was for me shows the connection and the bond that we have built here and how Coach Fleck has installed brotherhood into us,” Bateman said Monday.

But it was a tough and stressful road to get there. Bateman was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this summer, and to complicate matters, suffers from asthma. It happened during the Gophers’ summer voluntary workouts.

He’s since fully-recovered, and said Monday he’s “100 percent.”

In early August, he announced he was opting out of the 2020 season. He signed with agent Blake Baratz of Team IFA, ending his college eligibility. He was training on his own, living on his own and didn’t know what his future held.

Then everything changed Iin mid-September, when the Big Ten reversed course. There would be a fall football season with rapid testing and health protocols in place, and Bateman wanted to be a part of it. He had work to do to get his eligibility back, but Fleck welcomed him with open arms.

That’s music to the ears of Gophers’ football fans as the program comes off its best season in 115 years.

“I definitely feel safer being around our facility and being around the teammates and just being a football player here at the University of Minnesota all over again. That’s the first reason I wanted to come back and after that, my teammates are definitely a big reason why I came back. I owe them all I got while I can, and I feel like I have the opportunity to do that. I feel like I owe this university that, to give it my all. That’s what I came back to do is to have fun, bring memories here and to keep rowing,” Bateman said.

Bateman comes back after being the Big Ten Receiver of the Year and being named a First Team All-Big Ten pick. He had 60 catches, more than 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns.

He’s also using his platform to create change in a positive way. Fans won’t see him in a No. 13 jersey this season. He’s switched to No. 0, to show zero tolerance for racism and social injustice in America after the police killing of George Floyd in south Minneapolis on Memorial Day.

“We urge every single one of our student-athletes to be an advocate of change in a positive way,” Fleck said. “For him to be as high profile as he is and also want to make a statement with his number and have meaning behind it, I’m all for it.”

Barring an injury or something else unexpected, this will be Batman’s last season with Minnesota. He’s projected to be a first-round pick, and if he continues his trajectory from last season, could be a top-10 pick. For now, he leads a receiving corps that includes Chris Autman-Bell, Seth Green, Brevyn Spann-Ford and talented newcomers.

His goals this year are to have fun, make memories with his teammates and safely play the game he loves with his teammates.

“All I ever wanted was to be a college football player, and I feel like there’s no better place to do it besides here. So I was just really eager to get back with this team and get back to work, make memories and just build,” Bateman said. “I’m just really excited to be back.”