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Rashod Bateman formed a plan the summer before last season.

The Gophers receiver had gone wakeboarding on Lake Minnetonka with a couple of teammates, and spent the July 4th holiday at Zack Annexstad’s cabin near Alexandria, home to the Jim & Judy’s gas station that Bateman reps with his favorite hat. He’d attended Twins games, explored downtown Minneapolis, frequented the Mall of America.

And he’d come to the conclusion this was home.

“Ever since I’ve been here, I haven’t been homesick. I haven’t gotten homesick once,” the Tifton, Ga., native said last fall. “I fell in love with Minnesota. I’ve thought about it, I think I’m going to retire and live on Lake Minnetonka.”

Those retirement plans look a little closer this season, almost certainly Bateman’s last since he already declared for the 2021 NFL draft once. But he ultimately decided to return to the Gophers and play in the reinstated Big Ten season that begins Saturday.

The reigning Big Ten Receiver of the Year will likely go on to become a first-round draft pick, possibly in the top 10. He’ll hope to have a long and illustrious NFL career that could take him all across the country. But in a decade or so, he’ll find his way back here. Maybe with a nice house on a lake. Maybe with a post-playing venture opening the first Zaxby’s — one of his favorite restaurants — franchise of the North.

This place will keep a hold on its adopted son because it’s where he found himself, while lighting up the highlight reel with touchdown receptions.

“He came here a boy, I would say, and then he’s leaving here a man,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “It’s because of his experiences at the University of Minnesota and because of the Twin Cities area and the state of Minnesota that Rashod has been allowed to be Rashod in every way possible.”

Who he was

It took Bateman coming to Minneapolis to realize he hadn’t really ever felt comfortable in his hometown.

Bateman described Tifton as not having much to offer kids besides playing sports, especially compared to the Twin Cities. The Georgia Bateman of three or so years ago is also hard to compare to the current Minnesota version.

The old Bateman dressed very differently, a lot of collared shirts, boot-cut jeans and loafers. It was similar garb to what many of his white friends wore. Part of that was to fit in with the crowd. Another was to cover up his tattoos. Another was to make sure his friends’ parents didn’t look at him differently.

The 20-year-old recalled one high school relationship where the girl’s parents didn’t want her dating someone Black. He accepted it at the time but never would now.

“[When I came to college] that’s when I kind of realized how wrong it was, and what I put myself through, and what they put me through,” Bateman said. “And that kind of took a toll on me because our relationship was hidden for all throughout high school, however long we dated. I couldn’t be seen in public with her. I couldn’t take her on a date. I couldn’t post her on any social media platforms. Just because her family didn’t allow it.”

The four-star recruit had chosen the Gophers ahead of his senior season and stuck with them despite late pushes from SEC programs, including the University of Georgia. Fleck’s “Row the Boat” culture had captivated him — so much so that he tattooed a large ode to it on his right arm before he even officially enrolled on campus. While his stunning talent led the Gophers to an 11-2 season and a 31-24 Outback Bowl victory over Auburn in 2019, the Twin Cities provided something for him he didn’t even realize was missing.

He saw more interracial relationships here. He saw his teammates dressing and acting how they wanted. And through that, he found the courage to do the same.

“It’s just about being able to show my love for who I love anywhere I want,” Bateman said. “And I wasn’t able to do that because of the color of my skin. And now I am able to do that, and it feels so good. But now my job is to help others who want the same thing for their life.”

Who he is

Minnesota always had felt welcoming to Bateman. People lived up to their nice reputation, and he never encountered any overt racism.

But George Floyd’s killing reminded Bateman that’s not true for everyone.

Fleck said this diverse community has helped Bateman mature, given him real-life experience of the good and the bad. And Bateman has come to understand the power and platform he commands as an athlete, and how he can use that to help others.

“Rashod’s a giver,” Fleck said. “And he wants [to give] love, hope, joy to anybody he comes in contact with. That’s who he is.”

Bateman set Gophers sophomore records last year for receiving yards (1,219) and receiving touchdowns (11). Opposing defenses couldn’t only focus on stopping him because quarterback Tanner Morgan had another NFL-level option at receiver in Tyler Johnson.

Now Johnson is catching passes from Tom Brady for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so Bateman gave the Gophers an enormous lift when he decided to return.

Bateman revealed he had a bout with COVID-19 this summer, possibly stemming from a trip to California with friends. That had played into his decision to opt out, but updated Big Ten health protocols, with mandatory daily testing, made him comfortable to return.

All of this made for an eventful offseason, and Bateman has been active on social media, sharing his own thoughts on racial injustice or promoting certain causes. He changed from No. 13 to No. 0 to symbolize zero tolerance for racism. At a recent team meeting dedicated to discussing racism, Bateman was the first to stand up in front of everyone and share two personal stories.

He also inked another prominent tattoo on his left thigh, representing the Black Lives Matter movement.

At another time in his life, he would hide that away. He wouldn’t share pictures of his girlfriend or their two cats on Instagram. He wouldn’t let on that his fashion sense went beyond L.L. Bean boots.

But not in Minnesota. Not at home.

“Just being up here,” Bateman said, “I feel free.”