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Baltimore Ravens Cover Story: Rashod Bateman

Rashod Bateman: The Emergence of a Butterfly

Rashod Bateman witnessed years of frequent abuse as a child. He was overlooked in high school, then in the middle of a firestorm in college. Now he's ready to spread his wings.

By: Ryan Mink

Rashod Bateman with his mother, Lashonda Cromer (photo courtesy of Lashonda Cromer)
Rashod Bateman with his mother, Lashonda Cromer (photo courtesy of Lashonda Cromer)

Rashod Bateman would hear the screams coming from his mom in the other room.

While his two older brothers would try to lose themselves in their video games, Rashod couldn't stand by while his stepfather beat his mother – again. He would sneak over and open the door to the pain, hoping his presence could get it to stop, hoping he could save her.

"Sometimes I just wanted to make sure that my mom was alive," Bateman said.

He was just a kid, but Bateman was forced to grow up fast. The abuse of his mother started as far back as he can remember and lasted for a decade.

"I don't want to get too deep, but I remember a lot," he said. "It was just a lot of violence, a lot of hitting, a lot of yelling, cursing. It was multiple weekends in a row for years straight. It's just what our family got used to."

When he would leave his mother's room, Bateman would sometimes settle down in front of the TV and watch football. He slept with a Wilson football every night. During a time when the world around him was confusing and traumatic, football was a comfort and escape.

"I loved football ever since I could think," Bateman said.

Football and his mother. Those two helped transform Bateman into what he is today – a strong-minded, strong-willed first-round wide receiver of the Baltimore Ravens.

Bateman enters his rookie season with plenty of promise, billed as a polished playmaker who could take the Ravens' passing attack to the next level. After all he's been through, he's just getting started.

‘Do the opposite of what you see’

Bateman grew up in Tifton, a small, historically agricultural town in southern Georgia where one in five families and more than 40 percent of children live below the poverty line. Bateman was in one of those families and was one of those kids.

His mother, Lashonda Cromer, married his stepfather before Bateman could string a full sentence together.

"The first year was pretty good. But after that first year, a lot of abuse started," Cromer said. "It went on for 10 years because I was afraid to get out of it."

His stepfather was an alcoholic, often coming home groggy and angry. He didn't hit the children, but Bateman called 911 on many occasions, trying to save his mom. Cromer was afraid to press charges for fear it would make matters worse.

"When you're scared and you're trying to stay safe for you and your kids, there's not much you can do," Cromer said. "Rashod was hurt. He told me he was hurt. I was trying to tell him, as soon as I felt we could get out of there safe, we were getting out of this.

"I always taught my kids, you do the opposite of what you see."

Bateman and his brothers, Monjharvis and Travian, would take their frustrations to the backyard. They drew lines for a football field with their feet, stuffed balled-up paper under their T-shirts for shoulder pads.

At Annie Belle Clark Elementary School, Bateman would talk to his third-grade teacher, Mindy Palmer, who would later play a much larger role in his life, about the abuse at home. But it was at recess where he let out his frustration.

Mindy Palmer and Rashod Bateman (photo courtesy of Mindy Palmer)
Mindy Palmer and Rashod Bateman (photo courtesy of Mindy Palmer)

"He was not a kid starting fights or stuff like that, but if he didn't get to be the one to carry the football out to the playground, that would make him upset," Palmer said. "He wanted to tote it out, pick the teams, start the game. That's where he released all that pressure."

Cromer did her best to see all of Bateman's childhood games, but she was also working 12-hour overnight shifts to pay the bills. For eight years, she worked from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. operating machines that made hardwood flooring and carpet.

"There were some days when I would barely see my kids before it was time to go back to work," she said.

It was all part of a cycle that seemed to have no end in sight. Then one day, Cromer's husband stole her keys as she tried to leave and jumped on her. Bateman ran to his grandmother's house down the street and called 911.

This time, one of Cromer's friends was working at the police department. When the police came and saw the bruises on her face, they arrested the stepfather and the state pressed charges. A two-year protection order gave Cromer the time to break away, and the two divorced when Bateman was about 13 years old.

"It was a sigh of relief, but we had to start over," Cromer said.

Cromer was now raising the three boys basically by herself, with some help from her mother. The family moved four or five times. One time, they were evicted from a mobile home she was renting because Cromer was also trying to pay for her father's funeral.

The last place the family lived before Cromer got remarried had an active drug house two steps down from their front door. One day as they were getting ready for church, Bateman called for his mother to look out the window. Two men stood in her yard pointing machine guns at each other.

There were times when Bateman would come back from practice and there would be no water or no electricity. Travian recalls watching his mother go long stretches hardly eating to make sure her boys had enough bologna sandwiches, Cup O' Noodles or tuna.

Cromer kept working, including as a cashier at a Dollar General and as a teacher's aide in the school, giving her more normal hours so she could be there more for her boys. That was always her highest priority. But she still couldn't afford much.

So when Bateman was ready to play tackle football as a sixth-grader, he didn't want to ask his mom for new Nike cleats. He got his hands on her cell phone, created a Facebook profile, and privately messaged his former third-grade teacher to ask if she could buy them for him.

Palmer didn't have much to spare herself, but she bought those cleats. She could see that Bateman had big dreams and was willing to work for them, even at his young age.

Rashod Bateman with his mom and Mindy and Shane Palmer (photo courtesy of Mindy Palmer)
Rashod Bateman with his mom and Mindy and Shane Palmer (photo courtesy of Mindy Palmer)

"He knew he needed those cleats, but he didn't want (his mother) to be upset with him asking," she said. "We helped in any way we could."

Palmer and her husband, Shane, started attending Bateman's football games. They took he and his brothers to church and out to dinner. They even brought Bateman on vacation with them to Maryland's Eastern Shore, where Palmer's from. That's where Bateman had crabs for the first time.

The Palmers have no biological children, but they became godparents to Rashod. Once he got to college, they attended all but three of his games.

"Mindy just kind of gave me what my mom couldn't at the time," Bateman said. "It wasn't my mom's fault, but Mindy just kind of took care of me the way my mom couldn't, financially. She made sure that I was eating, made sure that I had clothes that I needed, and was also able to give me things I asked for. Mindy is like a part of our family – close family."

‘A skinny little thing’

Bateman started playing flag football at 5 years old. Cromer remembers one of his coaches asking, "How did this kid learn all these moves like this at his age?!"

Here's how: Bateman watched college football games at 7 years old, learned what they were doing, then imitated it in the yard. He set up drills for himself, bringing cones back from the playground until his mom could buy his own.

Rashod Bateman (photo courtesy of Lashonda Cromer)
Rashod Bateman (photo courtesy of Lashonda Cromer)

But when he got to Tift County High School, Bateman didn't turn heads. He didn't become a starter until his junior year, after an injury to a wide receiver and good friend who was ahead of him.

"He was a little skinny thing," said Ashley Anders, the former head coach of the school's strong 7A football program. "You always know kids are going to grow, but I would be willing to bet that nobody thought he was going to be a first-round draft pick."

Anders estimated that Bateman was probably about 5-foot-8 and maybe 145 pounds during his first years of high school. Travian said Bateman wore the same size shoes for who knows how long. When he got his shot to play, Cromer said her son was nervous.

"Rashod would say, 'I'm too little. That's why they don't want me out there,'" Cromer said. "I told Rashod, 'You don't worry about your weight and size because somebody will see something in you. When you get that chance, you put on a show.'"

"It definitely impacted me a lot," Bateman said. "I was getting overlooked because of my size. I was strong for my size, but my size didn't show it. I just had to continue to keep my head down and work."

Bateman was also tired of watching his mother carry the burden of the family's financial struggles. He told his mother he was going to the NFL someday, and set his mind to it.

Rashod Bateman (photo courtesy of Lashonda Cromer)
Rashod Bateman (photo courtesy of Lashonda Cromer)

"He was even more hungry for success, on the field and off the field, in the classroom. He did as much as he could," Travian said. "Seeing my mom going through everything, he wanted to make sure that ended one day."

Bateman had a good junior year, but not good enough to attract major Division 1 offers. That summer, he devoted himself to the weight room. He always had athleticism – the body control, hand-eye coordination and speed – but now he started to become bigger and more explosive.

But still, his football coach wondered if he was going to end up being a basketball player. Even though Bateman didn't start playing the sport competitively until eighth grade, he was a guard with excellent quickness, ball handling and elevation (yes, he could dunk). He helped lead his high school to a state championship as a senior, and first caught scouts' attention on the hardwood.

Frustrated by the lack of football offers, Bateman nearly went to college for basketball. He had offers from Texas A&M and Penn State.

Rashod Bateman playing high school basketball (photos courtesy of Lashonda Cromer)
Rashod Bateman playing high school basketball (photos courtesy of Lashonda Cromer)

"You kind of wondered whether he was going to say, 'Hey, basketball is my thing.' Then he ended up being the complete opposite," Anders said.

Anders remembered one instance when the football team was maxing out on power clean lifts in the weight room. Bateman had a playoff basketball game that day, so Anders told Bateman he had the day off. Bateman refused. "He was like, 'Shoot, I want to max out.'"

Bateman was good friends with the quarterback, and Anders remembered the two being out on the field in the spring and summer, throwing and catching every day. His work ethic – inherited from his mother – set him apart.

"I think that's why he's such a good route-runner," Anders said. "Obviously, he's been well-coached through college and all that stuff, but I think a lot of his success is because he's run those routes 100,000 times."

"Me being overlooked and under-recruited, it just made me work harder at my craft," Bateman said. "I would go outside on late nights and do football drills. I would go hard in practice. I would just do everything I could to be successful."

Before his junior year, Bateman went to a summer camp at Georgia Southern and caught the attention of some college scouts and coaches. But one school took a particular interest – Minnesota. Bateman told Minnesota at the start of camp that they were going to offer him that day. The following spring, before his senior season, Minnesota did.

"I still, to this day, haven't had maybe anyone have a better individual workout than he did that day," Minnesota Head Coach P.J. Fleck told Pro Football Focus. "And he loved every minute of it."

Bateman had never been to Minnesota and didn't know much about it, but he immediately committed once his first Division 1 offer arrived. Then came his senior year.

"I guess with him not being a super big name going into his senior year, folks weren't expecting what Rashod did," Anders said. "Man, I mean from Game 1, he arrived. He blew it up."

Bateman set school records for catches (83), receiving yards (1,539), and touchdowns (21). His receiving yards were the fifth most ever in the state of Georgia. All the big SEC programs came running, including home-state Georgia and Kirby Smart.

Bateman turned them all down to stay with Minnesota, a program that had never had a wide receiver drafted in the first round and just one highly successful one (Eric Decker) since the mid '70s. The school hadn't had a first-round pick at any position in 15 years.

"Not a hard decision at all," Bateman said. "Loyalty."

That year, an assistant coach at Tift County started a $500 scholarship "Commitment Award" in honor of Bateman's decision. Even though the coach is a "big Georgia guy," Bateman was the first recipient.

"As coaches, you always try to instill in kids, your word is your bond," Anders said. "As good a football player as Rashod is and all the success that he's had, he's probably a better person. He'll probably be more successful as a person than he is as a football player."

‘I proved I belonged’

Unlike in high school, Bateman was an immediate hit in college.

As a true freshman, he caught 51 passes for 704 yards and six touchdowns. Then came a monster sophomore year, in which Bateman posted 60 catches for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns.

His mom made it to all but one game, splitting the 19-hour car ride over two days and sometimes bringing a gaggle of family members with her. But family tragedy still tagged along, too.

On Aug. 3, 2019, Bateman's uncle, Anthony, died suddenly of a heart attack. Anthony had become a father figure to Bateman. He coached Bateman in basketball and football and would take him home every day from practice to make sure he was OK.

Rashod Bateman with his uncle Anthony (photos courtesy of Lashonda Cromer)
Rashod Bateman with his uncle Anthony (photos courtesy of Lashonda Cromer)

"He taught me a lot about life," Bateman said. "He basically told me that I was going to be in the position I'm in today. I do everything in honor of him."

Bateman, who still wears his uncle's gold pendant every day, dedicated the first game of his sophomore season to Anthony. Then he went out and posted 132 receiving yards, including a one-handed touchdown grab that was arguably the greatest single highlight of his college career.

Playing opposite Tyler Johnson, a 2020 fifth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bateman dominated games. He put up 177 yards and two scores against Purdue. He had seven grabs for 203 yards versus Penn State. He hung 147 yards on Wisconsin.

"When I got to college, I knew that I was going to go to the NFL. That was something I drilled into my head," Bateman said. "After that year, I felt that I proved I belonged."

A year ago at this time, ESPN's Todd McShay ranked Bateman at No. 19 on his way-too-early top 32 college prospects of the next NFL draft class. NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah compared him to New Orleans Saints megastar Michael Thomas.

‘There’s racism everywhere’

Just as the hype train was taking off, Bateman's life was turning upside down again.

In early June last summer, Bateman contracted COVID-19. It was such a bad case that it put him out of commission for nearly a month. "I had every symptom you could possibly think of," he said.

Only able to eat about once a day, Bateman resembled that "skinny kid" once again. He grew up with asthma, which further complicated his breathing and conditioning when he tried to get back into shape. He lost more than 10 pounds, which he wasn't able to put back on until this year's pre-draft process.

While he was dealing with COVID-19, the world around him was also rocked. On May 25, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, just a short walk from where Bateman was living.

Bateman dealt with racism in Georgia, especially when it came to dating. He and a white girlfriend had to hide their relationship from her parents. Palmer, who recently resigned from her job as an assistant principal because of what she described as "sheer racism" toward the Black principal, saw it too. Cromer hoped to shield her son from it, but he now had a front-row seat to a racial awakening in America.

"You teach your kids about racism, but until they see it and experience it, that's when it really hits," Cromer said. "The George Floyd killing really took a toll on Rashod."

Bateman remembers looking out the window of his college dorm and seeing seven helicopters circling overhead as protests and mayhem erupted around boarded-up Minneapolis. He wanted to join the protests but was too scared to leave his building.

"It felt like I was in the middle of a purge," Bateman said. "It was like the video game 'Grand Theft Auto.' Everybody was doing their own thing, dying, getting shot, protests. I look back on it now and I can't even imagine that actually happened. There's racism everywhere. Being in Minnesota, I learned that with George Floyd."

About two months after contracting COVID-19, Bateman announced that he was opting out of his junior season. He said it was for medical reasons, but Floyd's death also played a role. He was one of the first high-profile college players to opt out, and he called it the hardest decision he ever made in his life.

It pained Bateman not to play with his teammates for the school that first saw something in him. When the Big Ten announced that it would kick off its football season, Bateman immediately opted back in. He did so with a new jersey number, changing from 13 to 0 "because there is zero tolerance for racism in this culture." Bateman helped establish and was one of the most outspoken players in Minnesota football's monthly HERE (Help End Racism through Education) program.

"I just have to voice my opinion to make sure that everybody loves each other, no matter their race, color, or religion," Bateman said.

Bateman said he would wear No. 0 in the NFL if it were allowed by the league. He has continued to speak out about racial justice on social media, which has made his mother nervous of backlash, but proud at the same time.

"I feel like certain things are taught at a young age and I have a lot of young people that look up to me," Bateman said. "I know if they see me loving everyone, staying positive, being nice to everyone no matter their color or race, then maybe they will do the same thing. They want to be like me when I'm on the football field; maybe they want to be like me as a person."

‘Ends as a beautiful butterfly’

After all the offseason hype, Bateman's junior season was tougher than his sophomore year.

He played at 186 pounds all season after being at 197 or 198 the prior year. His conditioning hadn't fully recovered from the respiratory problems, and he dealt with other injuries.

He still averaged nearly 100 receiving yards per game though. After five games and following a spike of COVID cases on the team, Bateman opted out for a second time to focus on preparing for the NFL Draft.

Bateman was lumped into the second tier of wide receiver prospects entering the draft. He didn't care much about that, but he was puzzled that his speed was questioned (he ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at his Pro Day to eliminate those concerns) and those pesky questions about his size popped up when he measured a smaller than he looks on tape.

The Ravens loved what they saw – the total package of polished route-running, athleticism and work ethic. Director of Player Personnel Joe Hortiz had a front-row seat at Bateman's Pro Day and immediately called General Manager Eric DeCosta and Head Coach John Harbaugh afterwards.

"I'm like, 'Hey man, you've got to watch his Pro Day.' You can definitely feel the speed," Hortiz said. "You really felt it – his ability to really just get in-and-out [of routes] and show that twitch and strength that can transition into the burst and explosion."

With a hunch that the Green Bay Packers could draft Bateman at No. 29, the Ravens grabbed their guy at No. 27. Baltimore has been starving for a star wide receiver for decades and DeCosta is hoping Bateman and fellow first-round wide receiver Marquise Brown team up to break the cycle.

Rashod Bateman after being drafted (photo courtesy of Lashonda Cromer)
Rashod Bateman after being drafted (photo courtesy of Lashonda Cromer)

On the other end of the line of the draft-night call, Bateman and his family freaked out. After he hung up with DeCosta and Harbaugh, Bateman took off running down the street in celebration as if he were going to run straight out of Tifton – for good.

"He has no reason to come back here except to see his Momma," Cromer said. "He's ready to put on that show."

"My husband is a paraplegic, so he can't stand. But I really thought he was going to walk that night," Palmer said. "The word proud doesn't even encompass the way we all feel. It's just so wonderful to see his dreams come true."

Bateman, his two brothers and Cromer all plan to get matching butterfly tattoos. They hoped to get them before Bateman left for Baltimore, but his schedule filled up fast.

"Once he got that playbook, he was going out to the school practicing and learning those plays. And that just left me and my butterfly out the window," Cromer said with a chuckle. "I'm praying he takes a break one day."

Cromer plans to get her tattoo on her foot. Bateman is thinking he'll get it on his rib cage. He doesn't have a lot of real estate left after he got a Black Lives Matter tattoo on his left thigh.

"The only place I can think of right now is a painful place," Bateman said. "It signifies that our family is growing. A butterfly starts off as a caterpillar but ends up as a beautiful butterfly."

"It signifies change," Cromer added. "I have seen all of us change because we've been through so much, but we didn't let that tear us down."

Check out the childhood, high school, college and pro photos of Rashod Bateman.

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