Teammates and friends talk about the legend of Baker Mayfield as though he were forged from some alien metal and dropped to earth—a shining example for the little guy. To almost everyone who met him at Oklahoma, he’s Baker Mayfield, walk-on turned Heisman Trophy winner, a six-foot powder keg who slings it like Favre, trash-talks like Shaq, dances like Bruno . . . and might actually hail from Mars.
But they didn’t know him way back when—not back in Gina and James Mayfield’s kitchen in the suburbs of Austin, where 17-year-old Baker got up the nerve to tell his father that for college he intended to choose between Florida Atlantic and Washington State, the two so-so FBS football programs he’d gotten offers from. Those were the two schools that really liked him, and Mayfield longed to be desired, to have a chance to play.
“I didn’t get the offers I wanted,” he recalls, “and in my head I’m thinking: I deserve to not have to walk on.”
James, though, wasn’t having it; he told Baker he could do better. “You’ve always believed in yourself,” James said, “so why don’t you walk on somewhere you want to go?” The conversation transformed into a shouting match; the teenager stormed out of the house and paced through the neighborhood. Two hours later he came back home and decided he’d indeed try to walk on, at Texas Tech.
“I was so frustrated. I almost took the easiest way out, and [my dad] kicked me in the rear. We had the biggest fight we’ve ever had,” Baker says. “He pushed me to chase my dream. I wouldn’t be here right now if he hadn’t done that.”
Fourteen thousand, six hundred and seven passing yards later, Mayfield found himself at a Mexican restaurant in Hollywood, the Red O, huddling with an agent who was recommended by a handful of Sooners greats. Jack Mills handed him a sheet of paper detailing the compensation for each pick in the first round of last year’s draft. This was January, and most of the experts were pegging Mayfield as a mid-first-round selection. ESPN analyst Todd McShay, for one, had Mayfield at No. 19, to the Chargers. (Ultimately L.A. would end up with the 17th pick.) Mayfield took the paper and in ink drew a line underneath the No. 5 selection, held by the Broncos. “I’m not going later than this,” he said.
In just five years Baker Mayfield has gone from a teenager who was ready to compromise on his dreams and become a Florida Atlantic Owl . . . to a 23-year-old football idol who firmly believes in his ability to will extraordinary things into happening. Along the way his eyes got big. Some will surely say his head did too.
At his pro day in Norman last month, Mayfield wore a crimson-and-cream Nike headband and a small medallion bearing a depiction of St. Christopher, known as the patron saint of athletes. The headband made the rounds on social media and drew giggling comparisons to Karate Kid protagonist Daniel LaRusso. One day before the workout, the Chargers—the team that McShay imagined drafting Mayfield in the second half of the first round—had asked him to go to lunch with a handful of staffers, including offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. (The presence of all those Chargers employees was all the more flattering considering the timing: Free agency had just begun, and that’s typically an all-hands-on-deck day in NFL offices.) Before their lunch, the Chargers had given Mayfield a handful of plays to study and then dissect—an exercise he had excelled at with other teams.
Asked afterward, though, how he felt he’d performed in the Chargers meeting, Mayfield flashed a shade of vanity more often associated with LaRusso’s Karate Kid rival: cheap-shotting bad boy Johnny Lawrence. “I didn’t look at their playbook as much as a I should have,” Mayfield said. “It could have gone a little bit better . . . but at the same time, I’m prioritizing which playbooks I’m going to learn. No offense to them, but I’ve got a lot on my plate.”
It’s not so strange, during a week packed with interviews, that a draft prospect who’s likely to be selected in the top five—just as he promised—might prioritize a team with a high pick over one with a low pick. What is odd is that he would admit it. Out loud. With a recorder in front of him.
In the Manual of Modern Quarterbacking, authored by Tom Brady (foreword by Peyton Manning), telling it like it is would be just about as taboo as snoozing through a film session. Those close to Mayfield chalk up this brutal honesty to Baker being Baker, though there are key factors of his personal history to consider. For one, there was never a starter over Mayfield for him to look up to in college; he never watched a senior QB squirm under the media spotlight and deliver those boilerplate answers. Drew Brees watched and learned from Billy Dicken at Purdue; Ben Roethlisberger spent a redshirt year at Miami (Ohio) observing a guy named Mike Bath; at N.C. State, Russell Wilson redshirted while Daniel Evans started. But Mayfield took the reins at Tech immediately. (And how’s this for a start? He completed six of his first seven collegiate passes and threw four TDs in that win, the first of five straight before an injury.) After that he took Trevor Knight’s job at Oklahoma and led the Sooners for three seasons. In other words, it’s been The Baker Mayfield Show for some time now. He did it his way because it was the only way he knew.
That’s not to say he doesn’t listen. His camp—Mills and his partner-son, Tom; marketing agents Patrick Hayes and Lindsey Waterhouse; James, Gina and Baker’s older brother, Matt—has been successful in convincing Mayfield to stop antagonizing media members and Texas football commits on Twitter. (He still browses social media, still uses screenshots of offending tweets as motivation—it’s all fodder for the cameras on an upcoming Behind Baker documentary series.) And at the Senior Bowl in January, Mayfield finally met a QB he could look up to: former Jets and Dolphins starter Chad Pennington, who mentored prospects in Mobile and at the combine in Indianapolis, earning Mayfield’s respect through impartiality and sage advice. “We started talking about how he presents himself in the best light to make sure organizations really understand who he is,” Pennington says. “He’s secure with who he is. And I think, as evaluators, you have to be very careful about judging that as ‘not caring enough’ or ‘not being perceptive enough.’ ”
Here’s a relevant bit of Pennington’s advice to Mayfield and others of his ilk: Don’t blow off any team, regardless of its draft position. “Just because this team’s not going to be able to draft you, it doesn’t matter,” he says, “because you may be on this team four years from now. There are only 32, and they all matter.” (Mayfield’s meeting with the Chargers may be an indication that he’s not absorbing everything Pennington tells him.)
The day Pennington introduced himself to Mayfield’s North team at the Senior Bowl, the onetime NFL QB recited his cellphone number aloud, offering himself as a sounding board for any and all takers. Mayfield was interested but didn’t write down the digits. He didn’t have to. Two days later he recited them from memory, and the number checked out. “My dad thinks I have a photographic memory,” he says. “I’ve just always been able to remember that kind of thing.”
Uniquely gifted, brazenly self-confident, motivated by perceived slights—all of this reminds one former NFL quarterback of his own personal downfall. Ryan Leaf, the No. 2 pick in 1998 by the Chargers (and an undeniable bust, having finished his pro career with 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions), went on the Ballers with Babies podcast in March and aired his concerns about Mayfield. “The biggest thing for me will be how he deals with failure,” Leaf said. “That’s where my downfall was, when things began to fall apart. . . . When the media is on you, you play a bad game, your whole city is on you, that’s where we’ll see where Baker Mayfield is at. Right now there’s no evidence to back up that, when things get tough, he won’t break.”
Go back to 1998. Scott Goldman and Jim Bowman had just finished up their sports psychology degrees, and they were searching for a niche in an expanding field when they learned that the Wonderlic test, originally developed in the 1930s as a tool to evaluate entry-level applicants at a consumer-loan provider, was the only intelligence test being administered to prospects at the NFL combine. Not only is the Wonderlic based off a now-80-year-old theory, says Goldman, but “it’s language-dependent, and it has socioeconomic and cultural biases. So we spent years looking at all the forms of intelligence and cognitive abilities that impact unsolvable puzzles.”
In 1998, Leaf, who would fizzle out after just four seasons in the league, scored a 27 out of 50. That same year Manning, the NFL’s career leader in passing yardage, scored a 28. Leaf, by his own admission, struggled with the mental aspect of the game early in his career, and the subsequent criticism crippled him with self-doubt. As Goldman and Bowman watched Leaf’s career implode, they worked in the background on a test that might better predict a young player’s football aptitude. They sought to eliminate cultural and language biases and evaluate a handful of intelligence traits that translated directly to athletics, like the brain’s processing speed and its ability to recall information or adapt to shifting circumstances. They called their new test the AIQ (Athletic Intelligence Quotient), and they found a positive correlation between players with high scores and those who made early, meaningful contributions on the athletic field.