- For better or worse, the Oklahoma quarterback's exploits have been one of college football's most reliably interesting plot lines over the last three seasons. And as his career winds down, he's got his eyes on a show-stopping finale.
What could seem more ho-hum than No. 4 Oklahoma 41, Kansas 3? The toast of the Big 12, in its penultimate regular-season contest, stomps the cellar-dwelling Jayhawks on its march to the conference championship game. Perfunctory bookings like these speckle each fall Saturday; often their results are so lopsided, they fail to reward the viewer. But not this game, not any Sooners game, really, over the past three seasons. Miss one and you’ll miss the latest episode of college football’s best serial: The Baker Mayfield Show.
The tricks the 22-year-old senior quarterback pulls every weekend with his arm and feet stack up favorably against those performed by any modern passing wizard. In the pocket he dodges rushing defenders until the last moment, by which point one of his receivers has put himself in position to catch a tight spiral 30 yards downfield. Or he makes a run for it and, relying on jukes and stiff-arms, proves surprisingly difficult to bring to the ground. And those are the plays that don’t go according to plan. He is otherwise essentially a machine: In no contest this season has he completed less than 63% of his passes or thrown for fewer than two TDs and 257 yards.
The two best seasons by passer rating in the history of college football are Baker Mayfield’s 2017 ... and Baker Mayfield’s 2016. Barring a Lochner v. New York–level miscarriage of justice, he will win the Heisman Trophy. And regardless of what the postseason brings—with a win over TCU in the Big 12 championship game, Oklahoma will play in the College Football Playoff for the second time in three years—he is likely to go down in history as the best quarterback the seven-time national champion Sooners have ever had.
While the foregoing attests to Mayfield’s many gifts as a player, as a synopsis of The Baker Mayfield Show it falls short. When Mayfield plays, bizarre events occur. Games like No. 4 Oklahoma 41, Kansas 3 turn consequential and indelible. The record should show that on this particular Saturday in November, the Jayhawks started it. When the team captains headed to midfield for the coin toss, the Kansas leaders chose to spurn Mayfield. As he extended his right mitt their way for a shake, the four KU captains kept their hands clasped. Mayfield’s head jerked back as if to suggest a guffaw, and then he started clapping furiously, like the Jayhawks captains had just told a whopper of a joke.
And in a way they had. Consider the hubris necessary for a 1–9 team, with three conference wins in the past five seasons, playing before a crowd of 22,854, to cook up a scheme to punk the best player in college football. What did they think would happen? A slighted Mayfield would forget how to quarterback and doom his team to defeat? (Jayhawks defenders tried to knock him out with a couple of cheap shots, too.) Kansas should have known better. Mayfield delights in disrespect. In an interview four days before the game, Mayfield said, “I think I was truly born to thrive in hostile environments. I find it fun to have a little back-and-forth conversation with the opposing fan base.” He cited Morgantown, Columbus and Stillwater as the most challenging enemy territories; it’s safe to say Lawrence was, well, further down the list. ESPN cameras caught him yapping to the crowd, “Your school has one win! Go cheer on basketball!”
Mayfield has stuffed his farewell season full of capers like these. Before facing Baylor on Sept. 23, he told the Bears, “You forgot who Daddy is. I’m going to have to spank you today.” Before the Oct. 28 game against Texas Tech, the school from which he transferred in 2013, Mayfield entered the stadium wearing a shirt emblazoned TRAITOR. He had seen them in the student section at the Tech game the year before. Most conspicuously, after a Sept. 9 victory at Ohio State (avenging a 2016 loss in Norman that had doomed Oklahoma’s national-title hopes), Mayfield took a victory lap with OU’s flag before attempting to plant it at the 50-yard line. (Alas, the field had no give, and as Mayfield’s teammates swarmed him, the flag tumbled to the turf.)
The Monday after the Buckeyes game, Mayfield apologized. But in an interview later that month, he said he wouldn’t take back the celebration. He says now, “That’s the game, emotions are rolling. We had been waiting for that game a long time. It happened. Whatever. I don’t think it’s as big a deal as others might make of it. And I think I made some Michigan fans happy, at least.”
Mayfield and those around him say that the swaggering, cocky reputation he has does not reflect his personality. He says his true self comes across best one-on-one. Indeed, in conversation the Austin native is friendly and easygoing, an average college senior who likes Justin Timberlake, Jimmy Fallon, Halo and cooking breakfast. He does not have the polish and statesmanship common to some star quarterbacks; his enthusiasm for the game and the place he plays it is more earnest and direct. “That’s who I am, an emotional guy, a fiery guy, always played with an edge,” he said, sitting in an empty season-ticket-holder lounge at his home stadium, where three days earlier he led the Sooners to a 38–20 win over No. 6 TCU. “The coaches that are here with me, they love it, cause they know that’s when I’m at my best. I would never say I take it too over-the-top.”
Four days later, the boundaries of his game-day conduct now having been defined, came the Kansas game. Late in the third quarter, Mayfield marched his team down the field for an easy touchdown that fully extinguished what was left of the Jayhawks’ hopes. As he walked up the Sooners sideline he stared down his opponents. He popped off his helmet with both hands. Then, shifting the helmet to his left hand, he used his right to grab his crotch. (Like Chekhov’s gun, Mayfield’s right hand reappeared, full this time.) Then, he screamed “F--- you!” Three times.
The Baker Mayfield Show had turned into Deadwood, live on ESPN. And again the wider sports world had occasion to wonder: Just who does Baker Mayfield think he is?
On a Tuesday afternoon in Norman, before all this, everything was tranquil and brick-red, even the squirrels. Bedecked in all sorts of Sooners gear, students ambled quietly around the campus. Legend has it that during a tour of campus, Frank Lloyd Wright coined the term Cherokee Gothic to describe Oklahoma’s stately buildings, which possess the ornate flourishes one would find on Ivy League campuses but have been constructed primarily of brick. Some date to the 1920s. Many others, though, have risen in recent years under university president David Boren, the former senator and Oklahoma governor who has overseen the university since 1994 and will retire at the end of this academic year.
As state funding has dried up, Boren has steadily elevated the university’s national reputation. Oklahoma has aggressively recruited and enrolled National Merit Scholarship winners—no public school has more—with heavy tuition subsidies. And among the campus’s unusual features is Scholars’ Walk, a pathway with bronze plaques to commemorate every alum who has received a major scholarship or fellowship. Clearly the university is committed to being recognized for more than athletics. But this chip has been on the school’s shoulder for a long time: Six decades ago an OU president told the state senate, “I want a university the football team can be proud of.”
Although that dream seems closer than ever before, Sooners football nevertheless remains the biggest deal in town. (The athletic department brings in enough revenue to sustain itself and send cash back to the university; a sign at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art informs visitors that admission is free thanks to Sooners sports.) Earlier this year Oklahoma opened a renovated Barry Switzer Center, which features high-tech hydraulic lockers and a spa, and can be entered only after a fingerprint scan.
The same Sooners football cachet that built the Switzer Center inspired, in January 2014, an 18-year-old from Austin to wash up on campus without advance notice for the second semester of his freshman year. He had been admitted to OU for the fall semester but had chosen instead to attend school in his home state. But he decided mid-semester that there was no way he could spend four years in Lubbock. So he and his mom drove the six hours up I-35, the same stretch the family had driven, in better spirits, for so many Sooners games.
The annual visits to Norman had begun well before James and Gina Mayfield’s two sons were born. James had played high school football in Carrollton, Texas, with Charlie Sadler, who coached linemen at OU under Barry Switzer in the 1980s. (After high school James played quarterback and punter for Houston, without lettering.) Sadler introduced the Mayfields to the other assistants, and before long the Mayfields became part of the extended Sooners family.
They still called Austin home, though, and their boys tended to run into a little trouble at school wearing Sooners gear in Longhorns country. “For a kid, that was just about as hostile as it can get,” Baker says. Especially if the Sooners lost the annual Red River Shootout in mid-October. But the Mayfield boys didn’t face that too often: From Bob Stoops’s arrival in 1999 through Mayfield’s last year of high school, Oklahoma went 9–5 against Texas.
While Stoops was building his name in Norman, Baker Mayfield was doing the same at Lake Travis High, west of Austin. Well, really, he already had an outstanding name: Baker Mayfield. A name that could belong only to a quarterback—or perhaps to a historically significant tariff ratified in the 1880s. James had an old teammate named Baker, and while Gina loved the name, James didn’t. James said the only way he’d go for Baker would be if the boy’s middle name were Reagan, after the 40th president. He didn’t think Gina would bite. But she did. And so Baker Reagan Mayfield was born.
In 2011, though, Baker Reagan Mayfield wasn’t drawing much interest. He had taken over the starting job as a junior and led Lake Travis to a state championship, but the title was the school’s fifth in a row. Garrett Gilbert was Mr. Texas Football 2008 and had gotten a scholarship to Texas. Gilbert’s successor, Michael Brewer, had received a scholarship to Texas Tech. Was Baker Mayfield no more than a system QB? He also struck many coaches as too scrawny.
Even the coaches in Norman. After Baker failed to attract much attention from the major schools, his father reached out to his connections at OU, and Baker and his dad drove up after the district championship on a recruiting visit. They met the coaching staff before a November game against Texas A&M.
“They saw that I was the size I was, and I could tell that they were not interested at all,” Baker says. “They looked at me like I didn’t deserve to be there. It was a slap in the face.” TCU shunned him, too, after an extended courtship. And so the quarterback of the Texas state champions, who had always wanted to play for the Sooners, was stuck choosing among disappointing offers: Florida Atlantic, New Mexico, Rice and Washington State—the only Power 5 program to offer him a scholarship.
Mayfield’s parents implored him to choose none of those and to walk on at Tech. He did. He won the job as a true freshman, made eight starts (interrupted by a right-knee injury), lost the job and left school before the team’s appearance in the Holiday Bowl. There was only one destination he had in mind, only one program where he wanted to be. No matter that its freshman quarterback, Trevor Knight, had just led the Sooners to a stunning Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama. Within a year, he’d taken over as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback. Two years later, he has the Sooners three wins away from their first national title in 17 years.
After the Kansas game came widespread castigation. Some analysts suggested Mayfield had damaged his draft stock and should be left off Heisman ballots. One columnist declared that while Mayfield still deserves the trophy, he doesn’t deserve college football’s respect. The Big 12 reprimanded Mayfield, noting that his “behavior was ... inappropriate and contrary to our sportsmanship policies.”
It was Mayfield’s bad luck that the camera was trained on him; the reliable if contradictory politics of college football—spirited, freewheeling college football!—dictated that he face formal censure. His punishment came the following Monday, when coach Lincoln Riley announced that Mayfield would not start and would be stripped of his captaincy for the final regular-season game against West Virginia. It was to be the last home game of Mayfield’s college career.
The punishment wounded Mayfield. Not starting—well, he could deal with that. But losing his captaincy on Senior Night after three triumphant years as a leader? That was a bigger blow.
He had put his circle through similar agita in February, when he was arrested early one Saturday morning in Fayetteville, Ark., for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, fleeing and resisting arrest. (He pleaded guilty to the first three charges as part of a deal with prosecutors in June.) The whole affair was caught on a dash-cam video, which featured this exchange between police officers:
“By the way, he’s the quarterback for OU. That’s what his girlfriend said.”
“Is he really? He’s not very fast.”
Barry Switzer tweeted his impression: “They couldn’t have caught my quarterbacks.” On social media, Mayfield apologized almost immediately—to the university, his teammates, family, friends and fans. But it was months, he says, before he felt comfortable living with and talking about what he had done. Gina Mayfield says, “Baker had prided himself on being smarter than that, on not being the guy to make the stupid mistake.”
What reinvigorated Mayfield were the teammates and coaches who were still looking to him for leadership. The same faith inspired him after the Kansas game. “The way those guys supported me showed me that I don’t need a title, necessarily, for the West Virginia game,” he said two days after receiving his punishment. “They still believe in me.”
Riley clearly does. At 34, he is the youngest head coach in major college football, and he has forged uncommon bonds with his players, Mayfield especially. Matt Mayfield, Baker’s brother, explains that Riley is sometimes a third parent to Baker and sometimes a second brother. He arrived at Oklahoma from East Carolina before the 2015 season, the year Mayfield became the starter. (Riley had actually tried to bring Mayfield to East Carolina when he was transferring from Texas Tech.) When both had chances to leave after 2016—Mayfield for the NFL draft; Riley, then offensive coordinator under Stoops, for the head-coaching job at Houston—they stayed put in hopes of making another run at the title together.
When they are asked, almost a year later, if they remained as a package deal, they give nearly identical answers in separate interviews. Mayfield: “It was never spoken, but I think it was understood. I can’t speak for him, but I would like to think it was.” Riley: “We didn’t sit down and have the discussion about it, but I think in a way we were on the same page without saying anything.” Quarterback and coach are that simpatico.
Mayfield has proved to be exceedingly coachable, Riley says. “He’s hardheaded in a lot of ways,” he says. “And he’s very comfortable in his own skin. And sometimes that can lead you to not having perspective, not really looking at a situation, and maybe not handling it the best way. I think he’s still very comfortable in his own skin, with who he is, but also now he has a little better understanding of taking a step back and looking at everything.”
In his news conference announcing Mayfield’s suspension, Riley was choked up for nearly 30 seconds, unable to speak. “Despite this, no matter how long I go on coaching, whatever the rest of my career ends up being like, I don’t know that I’ll ever have a player that’s as special to me as he is. ... He’s the best football player in America,” Riley said. “He’s got a great heart that a lot of people don’t get to see like I do, and I’m proud as hell to be his coach.”
In the interview after his suspension was announced, Mayfield apologized to Riley and then unspooled where he goes from here: “People say that I’ve apologized too much, and they’re getting sick of it. You live and you learn. I’d rather be honest and have people see me grow than act like I have it all figured out. There’s a lot of growing I have to do, in football and in life. I’ve always loved getting better, not just in football but as a person. I’m looking forward to a challenge of having people doubt me once again. This time it’s not about football. It’s about my name.”
Is this the man you want as your quarterback?
That is the question being asked by a number of pundits these days, and in a few months, the same question will be asked with greater consequence by NFL general managers. Mayfield expects to win them over, “but if I don’t, so be it,” he says.
He presents a complicated package, which is why analysts have him going anywhere from the top of the first round to the third or fourth. No college quarterback has put up better numbers. He can make any throw. He has played hurt and led his team to victory in hostile environments. Riley says Mayfield, who has never lost a true road game in his time at Oklahoma, is one of the smartest players he has ever coached and truly fearless. Mayfield has also galvanized a diverse Sooners locker room. “He’s made real friends with almost everyone here,” says Jaxon Uhles, a walk-on senior fullback from Norman who rooms with Mayfield. Indeed, the team captains carried Mayfield’s jersey to the coin toss of the West Virginia game.
On the field Mayfield has improved so much that NFL teams need not wonder about his ability to learn new schemes or plays. But he’s 6' 1", shorter than pro teams prefer. They may worry, also, that Riley’s Air Raid–derived offense has magnified Mayfield’s strengths and obscured his weaknesses. Besides, the defenses of the Big 12 have put up limited resistance against every quarterback this year, not just Mayfield.
Given that he is a relatively small Texas-reared quarterback with tendencies to scramble, win and strut, one particular comparison recurs: Johnny Manziel. It was less than four years ago that the Browns selected Manziel in the first round out of Texas A&M. He is presently in the midst of a second straight season outside football, a mix of infractions and indifference having stalled his career.
Mayfield’s mother says the Manziel comparison upsets him because he has strived to be a good citizen. Says Baker, “At first, I was like, Wow, they’re comparing me to him? He’s a great football player. Then I realized, it’s probably not the on-the-field stuff they’re comparing me to.” Mayfield prefers comparisons to Russell Wilson or Drew Brees, relatively short, strong-armed quarterbacks who have distinguished themselves as motivators. Riley says he sees a lot of another quarterback in Mayfield—Brett Favre. “I feel like Baker’s a little bit more efficient, I don’t think he’s as much of a gunslinger, he won’t have as many mistakes. But the flamboyant plays, the way they lead, their arms, they remind me a lot of each other.”
For now, though, Mayfield’s eyes are trained elsewhere: He has long visualized himself holding up the college football championship trophy. “It’s the reason I came back,” he says. What stands between the Sooners and a national title is a defense ranked No. 61 in yards allowed. Oklahoma games often turn into shootouts, magnifying the significance of every possession. Throw an interception or lose a fumble, and you might never catch up.
Even if his team falls short of a title and Mayfield is left only with the most statistically distinguished passing career in college history, he should expect to take his place in bronze in OU’s Heisman Park, alongside Sam Bradford, Steve Owens, Billy Sims, Billy Vessels and Jason White. As Mayfield witnessed growing up, the Sooners take great pride in commemorating their greatest.
In the meantime, there’s a statue already on campus that might capture Mayfield better than any mimetic cast could. In the campus art museum, there’s an eight-foot fiberglass sculpture by Luis Jiménez called Mesteño: mustang. The placard next to the sculpture notes that mustangs, the fearsome symbol of the pioneer spirit, are descended from trained horses.
But they’re wild now. The horse is posed on its hind legs, rearing back, ready to bolt. It is painted a silvery blue. Its eyes, though, are burning red.