Rashod Bateman took off, sprinting down the field past his defender. Somewhere behind him, Tanner Morgan released the ball. It soared just a tad out of reach, but the Gophers receiver lunged, his left hand outstretched.
The ball landed right in his palm — almost like some magnetic force drew it there — and Bateman crossed into the end zone.
His one-handed score and four other first-half catches helped Minnesota survive South Dakota State's upset bid last week. Bateman has emerged as a critical piece of the offense, heading into Saturday's game at Fresno State, but the sophomore is playing for much more than just the Gophers this year.
Bateman's uncle Anthony Bateman died unexpectedly of a heart attack at a basketball tournament Aug. 3 at age 52. "Coach Bate" was an assistant coach for the basketball and football teams at his alma mater, Tift County High School in Georgia, first starting coaching nearly 30 years ago.
Just like many others, Rashod Bateman learned from his uncle. But their relationship went much deeper.
"He was like a father figure for me," Bateman said. "Growing up, I had [a father], but it wasn't what every kid dreams of. My dad was like here and there or whatever. So he kind of stepped in and took the role. … Gave me rides home when I needed to, sheltered me, clothed me when I needed to. So he was always there for me."
Anthony Bateman had that effect on many students at Tift County. Social media tributes poured out via #4theBate. Candlelight vigils, memorial services — and a former student who lived next door to Anthony Bateman, rapper J. Trill, even wrote a song honoring his former neighbor.
Rashod Bateman joined in, wearing a "T" on his eye-black in last week's Gophers opener to represent his community. He then dedicated his five-catch, 132-yard performance to his uncle.
Bateman's game-breaking presence is especially important to the Gophers, because opposing defenses seem intent on double-teaming fellow NFL receiving prospect Tyler Johnson, as South Dakota State tried. But if that leaves single coverage for the 6-2, 210-pound Bateman, it's clear he can make teams pay.
Last year, he set Gophers freshman records for receptions (51) and receiving yards (704). His momentum kept building all summer, and then tragedy struck. Coach P.J. Fleck said he was proud of how well the receiver responded.
Bateman's mother, Lashonda Cromer, heard the news and was planning to call her son after he finished with practice, as training camp had just started. But Bateman heard before and called his mom to ask her if it was true.
"He got so emotional, he couldn't talk," Cromer said. "He had to just call me back. He took it very hard."
When her son collected himself, his first question was when the funeral was. His primary concern was making sure he could attend, and he was worried it might not be possible.
But Fleck and the Gophers athletics department stepped in to make that easier. Through the Student Athlete Opportunity Fund, the administration paid for Bateman's flight home. Fleck allowed him to go home for a weekend despite being in the midst of season preparations.
"Watch him go through all that, go back home, come back, go through grief, come back, bounce back, have some tough days at practice. Open up and talk about it," Fleck said. "… That is why mental health is so important. Because that young man can come make a catch like that and play like that, like he did [against South Dakota State], losing the biggest male figure in his life two weeks ago, and play like that. That's what it's all about.
"… 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, because that's what he does."
Before Bateman went home and found closure with his family and friends, though, he relied on Fleck, Gophers receivers coach Matt Simon and his teammates.
"They were there for me," Bateman said. "And I talked to Zack [Annexstad, the injured quarterback], him being my best friend here, so he was there through it all. And they helped me get through it."
Cromer said she will always remember how Anthony Bateman was present for all her son's proudest moments, like going up on stage with him at banquets when the receiver won awards. His uncle attended each one, and there were a lot for his highly recruited nephew.
Anthony Bateman had been planning on coming to a Gophers game this year. It would have been his first. Cromer told her son, "Now he will be to every ballgame, looking down at you."
After the South Dakota State game, Rashod Bateman said he didn't know how he made that one-handed catch. His only explanation for why the ball seemed to guide right into his hand was that God was with him.
And maybe Coach Bate, too.