'It's bigger than football' -- Minnesota Golden Gophers return with new perspective

It's the nature and depth of the conversation that has marked the biggest change for Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver Rashod Bateman and his teammates.

Since the viral video of George Floyd's death began to circulate on Memorial Day, you'll find Bateman and Minnesota football players from a variety of backgrounds regularly sitting together just to talk.

"We have been doing a really good job of loving each other," Bateman said. "We've been sharing our stories."

The program's Black players have been encouraged by head coach P.J. Fleck to discuss their fears and concerns. Bateman said he has conveyed his experiences with racism while growing up as a young Black man in Tifton, Georgia, and expressed the terror of feeling that he and his Black teammates could suffer a similar fate to Floyd.

Seth Green, a veteran wildcat QB on the team, said he talks to teammates about his worries that similar incidents have occurred but weren't filmed.

Meanwhile, quarterback Tanner Morgan said he and other white players in the room have listened and learned as the team has grown together.

"It brought a lot of people together," Morgan said. "You have to learn more about each other. You have to learn more about your brothers. We've been talking to each other more about deep things."

On Saturday night, No. 21 Minnesota will face No. 17 Michigan (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) in a battle for the Little Brown Jug -- college football's oldest trophy game -- as the Big Ten returns. Only 800 fans composed of friends and family of participating teams will be permitted to attend, but it's a significant event for the Gophers, hosts of ESPN College GameDay and a nationally ranked program in Fleck's fourth season. The game will be played at TCF Bank Stadium -- just 5 miles from where Floyd died at 38th and Chicago.

In the aftermath, peaceful protests lingered for weeks. Some people set fires and brought violence. National Guardsmen with rifles stood in front of grocery stores and barbershops in a surreal scene for local residents. All of this unfolded while the Gophers tried to adjust to a socially distanced reality as the state implemented restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Fleck played collegiate and pro football in diverse locker rooms, but he admitted he did not understand the weight of the moment for his Black players until Green asked him a question that changed his perspective.

"He said, 'How many Black teachers did you have growing up?' It all hit home for me," Fleck said.

Added Green, a Twin Cities native: "That question was important because it puts into perspective how people's experiences are different."

Fleck said he committed to offering his players a platform to convey their experiences to one another after meeting with them individually. Their meetings turned into classes too. Fleck regularly brings in educators to speak to his players about the history of social injustice in America and its impact on marginalized communities, part of the Minnesota program's H.E.R.E. (Helping End Racism through Education) initiative.

"You'll watch this team come together when most of the world is falling apart," Fleck said. "To help somebody, you'd better know where they've been. You'd better know their real story."

Former Minnesota star Ron Johnson, a fourth-round pick in the 2002 NFL draft and a local TV analyst, said Fleck's willingness to admit he's still learning about some of the challenges that have affected his players in the wake of Floyd's death helped him earn more respect within the locker room.

"First, I think P.J. Fleck has done an excellent job, not just with communication but with understanding," Johnson said. "He's been a champion for a lot of causes. On a Zoom call, he mentioned he had players talk to other players about their experiences, even admitting 'I didn't know' about some of their experiences."

On Saturday, the team's bond will be tested with the first game of a shortened season that's scheduled to feature eight games, plus one East vs. West matchup based on the standings during the week of the Big Ten championship game.

Once dampened by Bateman's decision to opt out in August, the projections for Minnesota's upcoming season received a boost when the NFL prospect (he's listed as the No. 2 wide receiver on Mel Kiper's list) announced his return last month. Bateman is the key piece to a Minnesota offense that was fourth in the Big Ten with 432 total yards per game in 2019.

He said he'll wear the No. 0 to promote zero tolerance for racism.

"It makes me feel good," he said of the school's support. "It shows me they care about what has happened in my life. The No. 0, it means a lot to me. To me, it proves it's bigger than me, bigger than football, bigger than a lot of things."

Bateman, who tested positive for COVID-19 over the summer and also deals with asthma, said his initial decision to opt out centered on concerns about the protocols, which were still in flux when the Big Ten postponed its season.

"You know, it was like, 'Do I play and risk my life or do I go and prepare for the NFL?'" Bateman said. "Having experienced COVID made it tougher."

His return last month, however, elevated preseason expectations, an uncommon vibe among Gophers fans prior to Fleck's arrival. A trip to the Big Ten title game seems possible.

But Fleck is honest about the predicament the conference faces this season.

In May, the World Health Organization recommended that states not reopen unless they maintain a positivity rate -- the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive -- under 5%. Per the latest Johns Hopkins University data, only five Big Ten schools (Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Maryland and Rutgers) are in states that had met the threshold based on Tuesday's report for the country's seven-day rolling average.

The Gophers are testing daily while adopting new protocols -- protocols players have called safe and reassuring -- and aiming to avoid any disruptions. But Fleck said he has also prepared his team to acknowledge the uncertainty ahead.

"You tell them to control what they can control," he said. "Whoever does it longer will have success. They could work really hard and only play three games."

Fleck said he has sought his own coping methods over the past six months. He hops onto his bike three to four days a week and travels all over Minneapolis. It's an escape and makes him feel free, he said.

In the city where he resides, a calm has arrived as winter approaches. But Floyd's memory remains, proven by the number of people who still visit 38th and Chicago to remember the day racial injustice and police brutality were brought to the forefront, and a period that also shattered a city that has had to put itself back together again.

Fleck said he wanted to coach the most empathetic program in the country this season, a team that does its part to help the city move forward.

On Saturday, Minnesota will take its next step.

"We weren't promised a season," Morgan said. "We weren't promised a game, so Saturday is going to be a feeling of gratitude that we get to play this game and we get to create change."