Change agent zero: Rashod Bateman's jersey swap hearkens back to upbringing, targets racism in society

In this week’s showcase college football game between No. 18 Michigan and No. 21 Minnesota, the biggest star on the field will be debuting a new number. It’s a change that looks cosmetic on the surface, but channels deep into the soul of one of the country’s elite players as he confronts the complications of 2020.

Minnesota junior Rashod Bateman has traded the No. 13 he wore in emerging as the Big Ten’s best receiver for No. 0, which the NCAA is allowing players to wear for the first time this season. Bateman’s number switch is rooted in his belief that racism should be eliminated, which is spawned by personal experience.

Bateman asked coach P.J. Fleck to change numbers to make a statement. “Changing my number to zero is to show zero tolerance for racism,” he said.

To understand the impetus behind the number change is to understand the journey of Bateman to Minnesota – the collective scars he has accumulated and the pain that has shaped his perspective the past 20 years. Bateman has experienced the trauma of racism from an interracial relationship in high school and overcome a stepfather who he says physically abused his mother and verbally abused he and his brothers.

He has gone from a trailer in rural Georgia to the cusp of NFL millions because of the strength of his mother, and the unconditional love of godparents who’ve become family. Bateman’s story is one of conquering hate, blazing his own trail and recognizing how much more work needs to be done to help others do the same.

Rashod Bateman could have skipped this season and taken the safe path to the NFL draft. But after opting out in August, he decided to return to Minneapolis because he missed his teammates and saw opportunity to make a difference amid the city’s tumult in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

“That’s the No. 1 reason, to send a positive message to this country,” he said of the number change. “Me personally, I believe there should be no tolerance for racism.”

He’s comfortable telling his unsparing personal story “as authentic as possible” to show everything he has overcome and how far we still have to go.

Minnesota's Rashod Bateman discussed with Yahoo Sports why he chose to change his number from 13 to 0 this offseason. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
Minnesota's Rashod Bateman discussed with Yahoo Sports why he chose to change his number from 13 to 0 this offseason. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

‘No matter the color, we are all one’

At a Minnesota team meeting last week to discuss the history of racism, Bateman took the floor first in front of his teammates and staff. Bateman, who is Black, spoke openly with his team about dating a girl in high school in Georgia whose father didn’t approve of interracial relationships.

Rashod and his then-girlfriend, who is white, dated for more than a year. They couldn’t eat in public together, post pictures together on social media or walk into the prom as a couple out of fear of how her father would react. Bateman said the only time he saw her house was at a graduation party. “If she got caught, it would be a major problem for them,” Bateman said. “Everyone at school knew we dated, but our relationship had to stay undercover.”

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing just 5 miles south of campus and the movement for racial justice that has followed in America, Minnesota coaches and team leadership decided to start a program to address and educate the team about systemic racism.

Minnesota football’s first meeting of HERE – a monthly program to Help End Racism through Education – revolved around the players telling their personal experiences with racism.

Not long after Bateman arrived in Minneapolis in 2018, he saw a cultural openness to people dating outside of their race that didn’t exist in Tifton, Georgia, where he grew up. That helped him better contextualize the discrimination he was subjected to. “It wasn’t right for me to go through that as an African American,” Bateman said.

The decision to switch to No. 0 seemed obvious. He adored wearing No. 13, and his family and plenty of fans had bought jerseys. But he never hesitated: “The world is bigger than that right now.”

The Floyd killing devastated Bateman, who put up a post on social media of a picture with his head down in somber disbelief. “I never thought in a million years I would be scared to walk outside,” he wrote. “I pray that we all wake up and start loving each other the correct way and stop taking each other lives. No matter the color, we are all one.”

On Saturday, Minneapolis will be the center of the college football universe as the Big Ten opens its season. ESPN’s “College GameDay” will be there for a prime-time game, the first stage for Bateman to get across a message that he’s back for more than just football.

“It kind of shocks you he had to go through that for so long,” Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “Being the athlete he is, and the person he is, the whole room got a deeper understanding of who Rashod is and the terrible things going on in this world. He opened the door for so many other teammates to share their story.”

And that’s a microcosm of what he hopes can happen by telling his story, opening up a dialogue that expands beyond the team.

‘I was scared to get out’

In the sixth grade, Rashod Batemen surreptitiously took his mother’s phone and set up a Facebook account on it. He sent a message to his third-grade teacher, Mindy Palmer, that doubled as a plea for help.

He’d tried out for the football team in sixth grade and made it. But his mom couldn’t afford cleats. He asked Palmer to buy him a pair, explaining that he couldn’t play without them. She recalled the joy football brought him back in third grade, and she and her husband, Shane, happily purchased him a pair of Nike Vapor Jets.

“I was very grateful for that,” Bateman said. “It showed me the type of person she was, and it gave me the opportunity to play football with my friends. She’s been in my life ever since.”

What has unfolded from there is a powerful story about family, humility and how unconditional love transcends skin color and conventional perception. Mindy Palmer and her husband, Shane, who are white, became more involved in Rashod’s life after that point. They did so not only with the permission of Rashod’s mother, LaShonda Cromer, but with the encouragement.

Mindy and Shane became godparents to Rashod — Mama Mindy and Papa Shane, he calls them to this day. They’d sometimes pick him up after practice, do homework with him after dinner and offer an occasional place to stay away from the trailer. Rashod said they clothed him, fed him and left a bedroom open for him. “They treat me like their own now,” Rashod said. “They opened up their house to me, I was always welcome.”

Rashod Bateman is shown with LaShonda Cromer (L), and Mindy and Shane Palmer. (Photos courtesy Bateman family)
Rashod Bateman is shown with LaShonda Cromer (L), and Mindy and Shane Palmer. (Photos courtesy Bateman family)

At the time Mama Mindy and Papa Shane opened their doors to Rashod, he said his mother was in the throes of an abusive relationship. He recalls returning home to the trailer where he grew up, opening the refrigerator and seeing it jammed with cans of Natural Light and Bud Light. “There were cases of it in the refrigerator, taking up the space where our food should be,” he said.

Bateman’s stepfather for nearly a decade of his childhood drank heavily, according to both he and his mother. And when he drank, Cromer said it wasn’t uncommon that he physically abused her. “He’d go out with friends and get drunk and come back and jump on me,” she recalled. “It could be because I looked at him wrong.”

She recalled a night where he “jumped on me” and young Rashod, who was 11 or 12 at the time, leapt out the bathroom window. He ran 3 or 4 miles across town to alert LaShonda’s mother of what was happening, she said.

Bateman recalls being very young when his mother married his stepfather. He was excited to have a male role model in his life. But the pattern of drinking and physical abuse soon emerged, he said, casting a pall over the family. LaShonda said her former husband, who she separated from in 2013, couldn’t keep a job, and the cycle of abuse was so powerful that she felt like she couldn’t leave the relationship. “It was so bad that I was scared to get out,” she said. “I was scared I would be hurt or killed.”

The constant tension in the house drove Rashod away. (He maintains a relationship with his biological father and is in casual touch with his stepfather.) He played sports after school, any excuse not to return to the trailer. “I learned from it,” he said. “I learned what not to do, it taught me how not to treat a woman.”

Growing together as a family

The plea for cleats did more that enable Rashod Bateman to get on the field back in sixth grade. It forged a new direction for his family, and Mindy and Shane Palmer. Along the way, everyone developed a new understanding of the notion of family.

“My husband and I, we can’t have children of our own,” Mindy Palmer said. “We don’t qualify for adoption because [Shane] doesn’t meet certain health standards the adoption agency requires you to meet.”

Papa Shane has fought multiple battles with cancer – including of the spine – that have left him paraplegic, which means he gets around in a motorized wheelchair. Through the years, he has done everything for Rashod from cooking chicken-and-dumpling dinners to answering questions where Mama Mindy is politely asked to leave the room. “He’s been that positive male role model, he’s been consistent and never wavered,” Mindy Palmer said. “He’s always been truthful and shown what a man leading his family should look like. Shane is that person.”

Mindy is clear that there are lines drawn. She and Papa Shane are godparents, not actual parents. “Our role is to assist and support,” Mindy said. “Those guidelines are made very clear. We love each other as a family and have an equal respect for everyone’s place and part in their lives.”

LaShonda Cromer (L) is shown with Mindy Palmer at a Minnesota football game. (Photos courtesy Bateman family)
LaShonda Cromer (L) is shown with Mindy Palmer at a Minnesota football game. (Photos courtesy Bateman family)

The most powerful part of the relationship between Rashod’s family and the Palmers, however, may be the reciprocation. As LaShonda escaped from her own tumultuous relationship, she embraced the Palmers. She and Mindy have become so close that when Rashod calls Papa Shane, it’s not uncommon that his mom and Mama Mindy are out on shopping excursions. “If you didn’t know them, you’d think they were sisters,” Rashod said.

Shopping trips to T.J. Maxx and excursions to the outlet malls near Atlanta for Michael Kors purses are among LaShonda and Mindy’s favorite activities. The past few years, that’s expanded to trips around the Midwest with Papa Shane for Gophers games. “She’s my best friend,” LaShonda said. “I’m the type of person, if she hurts, I hurt.”

The support has been reciprocated, as Mindy appreciates the power of LaShonda’s openness for support. “To be able to allow that as a mom and say, ‘It’s OK for you to be here beside me, I welcome you to do this with me,’” Mindy said. “That’s a huge thing to do as a mother. I don’t know many people who have that ability to let that guard down and go.”

What’s resulted is a family dynamic that defies conventional definition but embodies the most important tenets – love, empathy and compassion. “Our family is the greatest blessing,” Mindy Palmer said. “We were all truly destined to be a part of each other’s lives. They’ve made me a better person. Rashod has taught me more than I ever taught him in the classroom.”

Why Bateman chose Minnesota

One of the most remarkable aspects of Bateman’s Minnesota career is that it unfolded in Minnesota, 1,300 miles from home at a school where Eric Decker is the historical standard at his position.

It’s a natural question to wonder why one of the best players in college football spurned home-state Georgia and staple SEC brands like Texas A&M and Tennessee for a place where prior to his arrival just two receivers were drafted by the NFL between 1999 and 2019.

Bateman’s decision to commit to Minnesota is a testament to relationships trumping pedigree. Minnesota discovered him so early and believed in him so much that Bateman didn’t even bother listening to most of the recruiting pitches after he blew up his senior year.

“Relationships and people matter more to him than a logo or a school,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. “He was willing to do something different. He’s a different person. Usually different people create change.”

Bateman committed to Minnesota without ever visiting campus. Former Minnesota assistant Maurice Linguist, who’d worked early in his career at Valdosta State, located near Bateman’s hometown of Tifton, first discovered him. He passed the recommendation on to wide receivers coach Matt Simon, who built a relationship by phone.

The Minnesota staff took part in a satellite camp at West Georgia University, mostly to eyeball Bateman in person the summer prior to his senior year. It didn’t take long for the Gophers to decide to offer, as it didn’t matter to the staff that Bateman had no stars on at the time. “We watched him run two routes and said, ‘This kid is going to be special,’” Simon recalled.

Rashod Bateman is shown with LaShonda Cromer (L) and Mindy Palmer. (Photos courtesy Bateman family)
Rashod Bateman is shown with LaShonda Cromer (L) and Mindy Palmer. (Photos courtesy Bateman family)

Bateman’s verbal commitment in June of 2017 came for a few reasons. The idea of leaving Tifton far behind was appealing. He also believed in Fleck’s pitch that he could blaze his own trail and leave Minnesota as the best receiver in school history. “When you know, you know,” Bateman said. “It was a feeling I had deep down that had me fall in love with the place and the people here.”

Bateman told Fleck after he committed that he planned to get a tattoo of “Row The Boat,” Fleck’s program slogan. The Row The Boat mantra stems from the death of Fleck’s son, Colt, from a heart condition shortly after his birth in 2011. Fleck has lived his life for two to honor Colt since his passing, and Row The Boat is an over-arching program ethos that encompasses serving and giving to others.

That higher calling appealed to Bateman, but not enough to listen to Fleck’s pleas to get the tattoo before signing day (hence increasing Minnesota’s chances of landing him). Bateman’s commitment got tested after he blew up his senior year as one of the best players in the state, as Tift County coach Ashley Anders recalls him scoring touchdowns on the first three possessions of a game early in the season.

“Everyone came out of the woodwork – Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia Tech came back in. Texas A&M. It was crazy. It really was,” Anders said. “He basically said, ‘Coach, I’m going to Minnesota, I don’t want to talk to them.’”

When Hokies head coach Justin Fuente came to the school in person, Bateman wouldn’t even meet with him. When Georgia coach Kirby Smart arrived, there was a different pull. Bateman thought about his relatives driving to his games, the glory of playing for his home state.

Bateman met with Smart, only to turn down his scholarship offer. The bond the Minnesota staff forged proved too strong, and Bateman knew they’d deliver more for his college experience than playing football. (He got the tattoo a few months after signing day.)

“I trusted this staff with my life and career, I’d built these relationships,” Bateman said. “I wasn’t going to flip to a staff I barely knew. I was just another person on their [recruiting] board.

“I stayed true to Minnesota because they stayed true to me. That’s something that I value as a person.”

What makes Bateman special

As a talent, there’s much about Bateman that’s obvious. He has ascended as the staff projected through his first two seasons. He started 13 games as a freshman in 2018 and last year emerged as the Big Ten’s Receiver of the Year, earning third-team All-American honors. He torched No. 4 Penn State for 203 yards last year in Minnesota’s landmark upset, which enabled the No. 10 Gophers to finish with their highest end-of-season ranking since 1962. “The bigger the moment,” Fleck said, “the better the player.”

Bateman is tricky to quantify as an NFL prospect. He’s 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, which means he’s big without being physically overwhelming. He’s considered to have high-end speed, but he’s not a 4.2 blazer. If you are distracted by what he lacks, however, you’d be missing everything he brings – ball skills, elite athleticism and a smoothness that Simon compares to “classical music.”

There’s also the indomitable person who forged the improbable path here – away from home, through adversity and seeing Minnesota as the vehicle to deliver him to his NFL destiny when few others could have envisioned it. “He’s one of the best college football players I’ve ever been around,” Fleck said. “He’s one of the best people you’ll ever meet, he makes everyone around him better.”

In early August, Bateman became the second prominent college player to opt out of the season. He tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the summer, and his concern centered around the asthma he suffered from as a child.

Once the Big Ten announced it was returning with daily testing, Bateman felt comfortable opting back in. He missed his teammates and coaches, and wanted to give something back for everything they’d provided for him. “When I opted out, I felt like a piece of me was gone,” he said. “I felt like I had left Minnesota not on the right foot. I got to give everyone everything I got.”

And that includes off the field, where Bateman has emerged as one of the most respected people on campus. He’s quick to point out how happy he is at Minnesota, including dating Sydney Rosinsky, his girlfriend of nearly five months who he begrudgingly admits beat him playing one-on-one basketball. Rosinsky is white, and Bateman is appreciative of how her family has accepted him.

“I’m definitely much happier,” he said. “I met her parents. They accept me for who I am. I talk to them like my own parents. They treat me like they treat Sydney, and it’s cool to be part of something where no one judges me for the color of my skin.”

Far from home, Batemen has found comfort, an identity and grown into a person that his family back home marvels at. He left home to find himself, and he has discovered success, love and the foundation for a successful future in football and beyond.

“One day I’m going to stop catching the football,” Bateman said. “Then what? The University of Minnesota and this staff and all my teammates have prepared me for what’s going to happen outside of football.”

Rashod Bateman is likely to leave Minnesota as the best receiver in program history. And he may end up most proud that will be only part of his legacy. He’ll debut as No. 0 on Saturday, with the goal of his message behind it resonating far beyond the field.

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