TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Cooper Bateman stood on the sideline of Bryant-Denny Stadium with a group of linemen sweaty and smiling in the warm sun and cool wind of a Tuscaloosa spring day.
He’d just put on a show for more than 73,000 fans who love Alabama football so much they lapped up every second of a watered-down version in the annual A-Day game. At the center of Saturday’s ceremonial end to the Crimson Tide’s spring camp was the 18-year-old from Murray, Utah.
The Cottonwood alum wasn’t the star, and well, Alabama coach Nick Saban made it clear this game wasn’t designed to allow even the best athletes to shine.
“In games like today, we really do limit what we do on offense,” he said. “We really don’t try to feature players. And I think that may be a little bit of a disadvantage to some of our players.”
Saban doesn’t allow freshmen to talk to the media, and he didn’t mention Bateman, even when asked about his quarterbacks, despite the fact that the redshirt freshman led the white team to a 17-10 victory with better stats than his senior teammate, Blake Sims. The conventional wisdom among fans and media members is that Sims will be competing with Florida State transfer Jacob Coker for the starting job this fall.
Bateman didn’t appear to get that message.
While Sims' longest drive was five plays, Bateman led drives of 14, 10 and eight plays. He finished 11 of 24 with 156 yards and a touchdown. Sims was 13 of 30 for 178 yards and one touchdown, but he also had two interceptions.
“I just thought he played with such poise,” said Scott Cate, Bateman's high school offensive coordinator at Cottonwood High and the man who Bateman still looks to for advice and assistance. “I really thought he enjoyed being there; he wasn’t afraid of the moment.”
CHOOSING THE CHALLENGE
As one of the top prep quarterbacks in the country in the 2013 class, he could have chosen to play just about anywhere — including most Utah schools.
He could have stayed closer to home.
He could have found a school that would have started the four-star prospect immediately.
He could have played baseball the spring of his senior year, enjoyed prom and graduated with his friends.
Instead, he graduated in December and enrolled in Alabama so he could participate in spring camp and ease into college classes.
“He was so young when he went,” said his mom, Lisa Bateman. “He was so far from home, and it was hard. He had to hit the ground running and he hasn’t looked back.”
Bateman never wanted an easy road.
He wanted to challenge himself in ways that most people don’t have the courage to do.
When he committed to Alabama, he told the Deseret News that he didn’t mind being a small fish in a big pond. He thought he could swim with those who came from more storied programs or had better pedigrees.
“Cooper wanted to see if he could play on a big stage,” Cate said. “He knew there was a chance he wouldn’t make it. But he wanted to see if he could.”
Bateman’s choice seemed particularly ambitious — especially showing up for spring drills at 6 foot 3 weighing 175 pounds.
“He struggled in spring ball last year,” his father Brett Bateman said. “He’s had to learn how to fight his way through things.”
A ROUGH RIDE
Challenge is something Bateman has never tried to avoid. He didn't have that luxury.
This is the same young man who had four head coaches in four years of high school football. He dealt with the death of two coaches and led his teammates through a political controversy that robbed him of working with the only constant he'd had in coaching — Scott Cate.
Just before Bateman’s senior season, the Granite School Board changed its rules regarding big-money donors. It meant Cate, who’d given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the school in facilities and equipment, couldn’t coach at Cottonwood.
Bateman was heartbroken, but he never publicly expressed it.
“Cooper never pointed a finger at anybody really,” said Brett Bateman. “Clearly he learned something from it. He had to dig down deep; he had to learn, more importantly, to be a leader.”
Cate actually believes it prepared him for the challenges he faced last spring.
“I think it helped him a lot,” Cate said. “We talked about it a ton right when it happened. (At Alabama) He lost the coach who recruited him the very first year (Doug Nussmeier, who went to Michigan). When that stuff happened at Cottonwood, I said, ‘Life happens. You can control what you do and nothing else. Worry about you and play as good as you can play.’”
Lisa Bateman said Cate helped his teenage son understand that sports are a business — and sometimes a messy one.
“When all of that went down his senior year,” she said, “Scott talked to Cooper and always told Cooper to treat this like a job. This is a corporation, and as quarterback you’re president of the company. ‘Coop, this is your job,’ he said. ‘You’ve just got a different boss.’ I think he taught him, just roll with it. That foundation was critical in how Cooper dealt with things at Alabama.”
CONFIDENCE EMERGES FROM CHAOS
Part of Bateman’s ability to rise above difficult situations is his personality. The youngest of three children, Lisa Bateman said her son plays mediator and peacekeeper with his two older sisters.
“That’s just who he is,” Lisa said. “He’s always been the rational one.”
He’s also always been focused and determined. He knew Alabama was the place he wanted to go after he and his mom visited the campus in the spring of 2012.
“He just loved that little town,” Brett said of Tuscaloosa. Added Lisa, “We drove in on a Sunday afternoon. He had a smile on his face the whole time. ... Cooper really wanted a traditional college experience. He found that in Alabama. They just happened to have a pretty good football team too.”
Cate said Cooper continues to work harder than almost anybody he’s ever worked with.
“People don’t understand, don’t have a concept of, when everybody else got a spring break, he didn’t take it,” Cate said. “He went and worked out with us.”
Whether they meet in Salt Lake City or in Cate’s new home in Scottsdale, Ariz., the first order of business is getting better.
He’s been disciplined in nutrition, weightlifting, conditioning and studying film, as well as perfecting his footwork and throwing ability.
“He is and always has been so focused,” Cate said. “He loves the competition. His goal is that he’d like a chance to play in the NFL. When he first got there, he didn’t quite know if he was good enough to play at that level. Everything was coming at him so fast.”
But working hard in the offseason has paid off. He’s now 220 pounds with the kind of swag and confidence that impresses even his veteran teammates.
“Cooper, he obviously had a pretty good day out there today,” said junior center Ryan Kelly, a two-year starter. “He’s a young guy still coming up in the offense. We have a good relationship so far; I think he’s got a pretty bright future out here.”
Kelly has worked closely with all of the quarterbacks and said Cooper is unafraid.
“I think that’s kind of Cooper’s personality,” he said. “You never see him down on himself. I guess it’s the kind of guy he is. ... If he had a bad play, the next play, he just shakes it off.”
His parents and Cate said Bateman is prepared to continue fighting for the job — even if he doesn’t win it in the near future.
“He knows this isn’t a sprint,” Brett Bateman said. “If he were to get the top job, he would be elated. But he knows he’s on a journey; he’s on a path.”
And whether he becomes a star in the NFL or simply earns his finance degree while playing college football, his parents believe this is the right path for a happy life.
“He has adjusted so well,” she said. “I was down there with him in February. I left on a Sunday, and I was sad to be leaving. It was hard, but on my drive back to the airport, I thought, ‘He is where he belongs.’ He loves it down there. He’s met wonderful people, teammates, families, they’ve been so incredible. I don’t think he would change anything.”
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