He is the crotch-grabbing, flag-planting, Lee Corso-hating, trash-talking, Baylor-spanking, touchdown machine from the University of Oklahoma. He was also Gridiron’s No.1-rated quarterback in the 2018 NFL Draft. Meet the polarising Baker Mayfield.
There are exactly 50 days to go before the 2018 NFL Draft and Gridiron is on hold for Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley. As we wait, the strains of Boomer Sooner ring out through the speaker, followed by the opening line of the state anthem: “There’s never been a better time to start in life. It ain’t too early and it ain’t too late.”
The line clicks and there is Riley, the baby-faced former Texas Tech walk-on who took Oklahoma to the brink of the National Championship.
There are plenty of eerie similarities between the 34-year-old head man and the 23-year-old quarterback who ran his offense to such perfection this past season. And plenty of love. Theirs has been a unique relationship, highlighted by Riley choking up and pausing for more than half a minute to gather himself when discussing his star passer. “No matter how long I coach, I don’t know that I’ll ever have a player as special to me as Baker is,” he tells Gridiron.
And so we begin.
“I liked him the first time I saw him,” Riley continues. “He’d left Texas Tech and was up here and we just hit it off straight away, had a great relationship very quickly.” But what about Mayfield, who’d left the Red Raiders under something of a cloud, was so appealing? “You know, I saw a kid with a lot of upside, a lot of personality. He was very serious about football, really into it, into the X’s and O’s. And he was hugely motivated. I was just very excited about working with him.”
Mayfield has that effect on most people. Even back in high school, his infectious personality and desire to be the best made him stand out, despite physical limitations. His former high school coach Hank Carter remembers the days well: “He first showed up here in the summer of 2009, 5ft 3ins, a buck fifty and frightened of no-one,” he tells me. “This kid was running the JV but mixing it with the varsity, throwing the rock, getting after everyone. Tiny little guy. But the intangibles were there. The leadership. Jump up there, be vocal. That was Baker.”
Carter is the architect of Lake Travis High School’s remarkable run of state championships: six in a row. No other school from Texas has won more than five. He is also the man who discovered Mayfield and promoted him to QB1 after an injury to the incumbent. In return, Baker led Carter’s Cavaliers to another title. But like everything, he had to earn it the hard way.
“Our very first scrimmage was against Fort Hood, which had a lot of military kids, so those guys were always tough to play against,” says Mayfield. “And they were big. The very first play, the ball was snapped, and I rolled out left. But instead of fully rolling out, I stopped halfway. As soon as I stopped, this man-child rocked me from my blindside and drove my shoulder into the ground. I separated my AC joint in my throwing shoulder. So yeah, good start. What really pissed me off wasn’t the injury itself, but how it happened. I stopped too early on the rollout. I made a dumb decision, and my body paid for it. Honestly, that was a lesson that helped me a lot in the long run. I had to understand that I couldn’t afford to make bad decisions on the field. I needed to compensate mentally for whatever I might have lacked physically. I was a little kid getting pushed around out there but I wasn’t going to let it happen again.”
“I gotta tell you,” says Carter as he thinks back to that game. “Baker’s right. That really helped him build that mentality, that chip on his shoulder. And I love that about him. He’s a joy to be around and he’s earned every inch of what he’s got. Anybody that played with him or coached him, they loved him to death.”
For all Carter’s sign-off is spoken emphatically, it’s incorrect. The Baker he and Riley have experienced isn’t necessarily the Baker others remember. In fact, their reverence is matched equally by the opposite emotions in some. And that’s the great juxtaposition facing evaluators, the one that makes him so polarising.
“He’s an arrogant guy who thinks he knows everything,” TCU head coach Gary Patterson told the media after Mayfield seemed to intentionally throw the ball at one of his Horned Frogs players in pregame warm-ups last season. You’ll hear similar sentiments from Ohio State fans who watched him plant a Sooner flag at midfield after he beat them by 14. And Baylor players who were on their field hours before kickoff and heard Mayfield shouting: “You forgot who daddy is! I’m gonna have to spank you today.” And Texas Tech fans who watched him roll back into Lubbock three years following his departure wearing a t-shirt with ‘Traitor’ emblazoned on it. And the Kansas players who refused to shake his hand at the coin toss, then watched him grab his crotch in retaliation after throwing another touchdown in a 41-3 beatdown.
At the Senior Bowl, meanwhile, he questioned a Bears scout who requested a sit-down by telling him: “You just drafted Mitch Trubisky. So what do you want with me?” Even after this year’s Scouting Combine, NFL Network’s Kim Jones reported that one head coach had told her that he liked Mayfield “most on the field” but “least off it”. Another described the passer as, “Cocky. Over-the-top cocky.”
But remember this: he is not sorry. And he makes no real apology for it. Because once you’ve been told you’re not up to it, the only thing you really care about is proving people wrong.
Proving everyone wrong.
“If I were on another team, I’d hate me, too,” says Mayfield. “Everywhere I look, someone’s telling me, ‘You’re not good enough’, or ‘You can’t do this or that’,” he adds. “You can only hear that so many times before enough is enough. In today’s society, that might be something that’s frowned upon, how brutally honest I am. But I won’t change. If you don’t like me, we probably don’t have the same views and values.”
Over-the-top cocky? Perhaps. He is certainly an acquired taste.
“I think you have to be very careful because when you start doing the stuff that he does, it brings more attention to you and not the team and when the game’s over the team wins, not the player.” Terry Gambill is another Texas high-school coaching legend. He is currently head man of the Allen Eagles, but back in 2011 he was in charge of Midway when they lost the state championship to Mayfield’s Lake Travis Cavaliers. “He was definitely competitive,” he tells us as he drives to his new school’s $60million football stadium.
“And he had that chip on his shoulder, but he was a bit more restrained. He certainly didn’t act the way he does now. Back then he played it the way it was meant to be played. He wasn’t running around with all the antics you see now.” There’s a barely concealed loathing in Gambill’s voice. It’s clear Mayfield is a long way from his cup of tea. “I certainly didn’t see a future big-time college player. Not at all. I didn’t think he’d ever go on to do that and, if anyone says they thought he’d win the Heisman, then they’re crazy.”
Gambill wasn’t the only one struggling to see a big-time college quarterback. Or any sort of college quarterback. After Mayfield won state, he failed to receive a single FBS offer. He was told his hands were too small, that he was too slow and that he’d never see over the line of scrimmage. His father called the University of Texas, begging Mack Brown to take his son, only to be told that the Longhorns already had five scholarship quarterbacks. Instead, he was persuaded to walk on at Texas Tech, insulted by the proposition. “It was like me admitting I wasn’t good enough,” he reveals. “But it sure gave me motivation.”
It all started well for Mayfield in Lubbock. He quickly won the starting job and earned Big 12 Freshman of the Year honours. But behind the scenes there was tension. Some claim his father interfered too much after his son wasn’t being put on scholarship. Others argue that Kliff Kingsbury was pressured into playing incoming four-star recruit Davis Webb instead of his incumbent. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between but, regardless, Mayfield had had enough. He packed his car and drove home to Austin, vowing to walk on somewhere else in the conference and promising to make Texas Tech pay for not believing in him.
“I’d seen him play, obviously,” Riley admits. “I was probably more aware of him because he played for my alma mater and because we’d had similar journeys in terms of walking on at Tech, being quarterbacks etc. And I think we both appreciated that journey more than some kids would. To walk on is a motivation. It brings an edge that you always carry with you. You never forget that people didn’t believe in you.” For a year, Mayfield had to sit and stew on those who hadn’t believed. Ineligible to play because of his transfer, he took out his frustrations on the first-team defense, ripping them apart in his role as scout-team QB. “Those were his gamedays out there,” says Riley. “Coach Stoops would tell him, ‘Bake, you gotta stop. You’re just supposed to show us how the opponent might look, not embarrass our guys’.”
But it only fuelled Mayfield’s fire.
“I used to sneak onto the field late at night when the stadium was completely empty,” he says. “If I was only allowed to practice, I wanted to be the best damn practice player the programme had ever seen. I wanted to prove myself with every single rep, because I understood just how valuable they were. The security guards would boot me out after a while, but I’m a visual learner so just having that time on the field to picture myself leading the offense was invaluable.
“Eventually I managed to get the security code for the indoor practice facility, so I started going there at night. I’d be out by myself, calling out imaginary signals to my imaginary receivers so they could get open against the imaginary defense. I probably looked ridiculous, screaming out formations in the middle of a dark field.”
His work ethic and understanding of the offense started to pique the interests of his teammates and coaches who were intrigued. “From the first day he worked with us, it was like, wait a second, who is this guy?” said Oklahoma left tackle Orlando Brown at the combine. “He just has this charisma. You’re naturally drawn to him. You can talk about how good he is—and he’s really good—but those things you can’t teach? Those are the things that make a great player, a great leader.”
But Mayfield was still haunted by what happened to him in Lubbock, why Kingsbury hadn’t believed in him. If only he could only find someone at Norman to truly buy in, who understood his struggle and what he’d been through.
Enter Riley, at that point the Sooners’ offensive coordinator. “I wasn’t scared of him,” Riley says. “I wasn’t scared to give him the chance to win the starting job. I wasn’t scared about what had gone before, by the fact that he wasn’t a high recruit or that he wasn’t 6ft 3ins, or that it didn’t work out at Texas Tech. Maybe my background came into it a little bit. But really, when he started practising and playing, it was obvious to everyone that he was going to become a star.”
With Riley’s backing, Mayfield found his feet, beat out Trevor Knight for the starting job and finished fourth, then third, in the Heisman voting in 2015 and 2016, before his monster 2017 campaign. He propelled the Sooners to huge wins at Ohio State, on the road in Stillwater and against Patterson’s TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game. He was a double overtime defeat in the Rose Bowl away from the National Championship. No matter what teams threw at him, opposing coaches simply couldn’t shut him down. Coaches like Baylor’s Matt Rhule. “We tried to slow him up,” he admits, discussing their 49-41 loss in September. “We tried everything. A lot of different coverages, a lot of disguise. We tried to show him some things he might not have seen before…” Rhule tails off and then laughs. “I tried to get him out of his rhythm a little, but he was too darn tough to slow down.”
So what does Rhule believe makes him so hard to beat? “Well first off he’s a special player,” he says. “Really special. Baker was an NFL quarterback playing in college and a lot of that was down to his mental approach which separated him from everyone else. You know, we’d see on film his ability to get in and out of plays at the line of scrimmage because of what he was feeling and sensing. He was uniquely comfortable doing that. To be successful over there he really had to understand that offense because it’s not simple. But to all intents and purposes it was like playing an NFL quarterback. You know, the arm, the mind, the mentality, the feet.”
And the attitude?
“I’ve not been close enough to him to comment on some of that stuff,” he says. “But I will tell you this; his leadership is something that you can sense when you’re watching on film and you can absolutely sense it when you’re standing on the opposite sideline. You can feel it, the chemistry he has with his team and how he gets the absolute best out of them. I worked with Eli Manning at the Giants and let me tell you, that’s pretty unique in college football. It can look like he’s playing a game everyone else has just learned.”
If Rhule won’t answer the attitude question, his NFL counterparts will have to soon enough. Someone will have to look past the crotch-grabbing, flag-planting and overt assuredness. They’ll have to overcome the February 2017 arrest for public intoxication, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest that Riley describes to Gridiron as “the sort of high jinx that 99% of college students get up to every weekend”. But some team will look past all of that and invest what is certain to be a top-10 pick in an undersized passer with a chip on his shoulder, rare skillset and even rarer will to win rooted in years of being told ‘you’re not good enough’.
“The truth is,” says Mayfield, “I’m always going to remember what it was like being that kid who was too small to be given a second look. I’m going to remember what it felt like to be doubted and how amazing it feels to overcome that doubt. In order to be my best, I need to play with an edge, and what I’ve found is that by showing my emotions, my teammates bring out their emotions as well, which can take everyone’s performance to another level. Sometimes my passion has been mistaken for immaturity, and there definitely were some moments when I was out of line. But these past four years, I was living out my lifelong dream, and I’m proud that I did it on my terms. All I need is one team out of 32 to take a chance. I’m not trying to please everybody. I’m just trying to play for one team and do it the right way.”
In his office in Norman, Riley laughs when Gridiron reads him that quote. But he is more serious when we ask whether the NFL teams that have been calling him almost daily will find Mayfield’s persona to their liking. “Look, I’ve got a guy that isn’t hard to sell. That’s fun, believe me. People will always want to know if it’s a fit and the NFL is such a fit league. It’s business. But Baker brings so much to the table. I just hope he ends up at a great team with a great coach.”
And does the man most responsible with nurturing that talent believe that Mayfield can keep on proving the doubters wrong? “I do. I do. I absolutely believe he’ll be a star. He has the belief and the attitude. He needs to stay healthy, carry on learning and getting better. But I think he’s going to be a great.”
This article originally appeared in Issue XXXVIII of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE