Baker Mayfield had never played a down of varsity football at Lake Travis High School before the Cavaliers’ 2011 season opener at the 100,000-seat Darrell K Royal Stadium in Austin, Texas.
The backup junior quarterback, then 16, was quickly handed the keys, however, to a program fresh off winning its third-consecutive Division 4A-1 state championship and facing rival Westlake on Aug. 27, 2011.
The stage didn’t faze Mayfield when Lake Travis’ senior starting quarterback exited with a shoulder injury a few plays into the game.
“I knew when I wasn’t nervous going in to that something was wrong with me,” Mayfield said. “Not wrong with me, but just a little different … A kid going in for his first varsity game on a big stage, and I wasn’t nervous at all — that was eye-opening for myself to realize that I’m ready for this.”
Mayfield notched 278 yards passing on 19 completions, threw for a 43-yard touchdown and scored on runs of 22 and 30 yards.
Lake Travis won 35-7 over rival Westlake as an undersized but hyper-confident quarterback kick-started a 16-0 season that ended with a state championship. Six years later, he’s looking to add a national championship at the school he loved from a young age.
But first, Mayfield will head to New York on Saturday for the ceremony to coronate college football’s most outstanding player. If he wins the Heisman Trophy, as is widely expected, a sixth bronze statue will soon stand in the park near the big patch of grass east of OU’s stadium where Mayfield used to play pickup football as a kid before Sooners’ home games.
From playing around the Heisman statues to having his likeness become one, the small kid with big aspirations had no clue he’d go from being the young Sooner fan in the stands trying to get a high-five from any OU player to being that player himself.
“The whole situation for me is…it was a dream come true,” Mayfield said.
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Mayfield knew he didn’t belong on the visitor’s sideline at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.
“Being the enemy for Sooner fans was a little different,” he said of his visit wearing a Texas Tech uniform when the Red Raiders came to town on Oct. 26, 2013. “It was frustrating. At the time I wasn’t happy. I had just gotten healthy and I thought I’d be playing again at that point in the season. I was unhappy about that and then coming (to Norman) and realizing this is a special place. This is where I grew up loving it. It was just different. It felt like I was looking from the outside in.”
A scholarship from Oklahoma or any major program never materialized for Mayfield out of high school, whose best offers came from Washington State, which had a combined 10 wins while Mayfield was in high school, and Florida Atlantic. Instead, Mayfield bet on himself and earned the Week 1 starting quarterback job as a walk-on true freshman at Texas Tech.
Mayfield helped the Red Raiders to a 5-0 start before suffering a leg injury against Kansas on Oct. 5, 2013. His starting job wasn’t waiting for him, however, when he recovered a few weeks later. Texas Tech won twice without Mayfield, so coach Kliff Kingsbury allowed Davis Webb to operate the Red Raiders’ offense as Mayfield brooded on the sideline.
Texas Tech ended its regular season with five straight losses, but Mayfield still managed to win the 2013 Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year award. He still wasn’t given a scholarship, however, by Kingsbury. So, Mayfield decided to leave.
Then-East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley tried to lure Mayfield to quarterback his offense. But Mayfield was set on Oklahoma, regardless of OU freshman Trevor Knight’s remarkable Sugar Bowl performance that postseason over Alabama.
“Trevor Knight’s going to be the guy there for three years, are you crazy?” Riley recalled telling Mayfield when he first recruited him.
Riley couldn’t wrap his mind around why Mayfield would want to go Oklahoma, but the lifelong Sooner fan was chasing a bigger dream he was told he couldn’t achieve.
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For one of the few times in his life, Mayfield was apprehensive.
Cleared by NCAA compliance, he heard about OU’s first team meeting of the 2014 offseason and showed up to introduce himself to then-Sooners head coach Bob Stoops.
“I don’t get nervous for football, but I was nervous for that,” Mayfield said. “Because they hadn’t really known I was going to be there or they hadn’t told me, ‘Yes, we’d like for you to be here.’ So it was just kind of showing up on his doorstep as an uninvited person.
“I wasn’t sure how he’d take it.”
Stoops heard rumors of Mayfield’s arrival and marveled at the quarterback’s confidence. After Mayfield introduced himself, Stoops quickly calmed the quarterback’s nerves, telling him, “I heard you were coming to Oklahoma,” with a half-smile.
Just a few months later, the Sooners staff did what Texas Tech never would.
“He was put on scholarship shortly after once we got on to spring ball and started watching him play,” Stoops said. “It didn’t take us long to where we’re like, ‘We’re not going to go out and get just any other freshman to go play like this.’”
Due to NCAA transfer rules, Mayfield was forced to sit out Oklahoma’s 8-5 season in 2014 that ended in a 40-6 loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl. So in 2015, he, Knight and Cody Thomas battled for the starting position the offseason Riley joined the Oklahoma coaching staff.
Like at Texas Tech, Mayfield again won the job. But in his second game as the Sooners’ starting quarterback, he faced the biggest test of his career to that point: a road game at Tennessee.
Mayfield completed 7-of-20 attempts for 77 yards in the first half and threw an interception on Oklahoma’s first series. OU’s offense punted five times as Tennessee jumped out to a 17-3 lead heading into half.
“It’s pretty chaotic, looking back on it,” Mayfield said. “The thing that sticks out to me is the conversation I had with coach Riley between halftime and then on the sideline.”
“Hey, this moment is never too big for you,” Mayfield remembers Riley telling him. “We’re going to get the job done, just believe in that. Keep doing your job and the good things will come.”
Mayfield threw another pick in the third quarter before he finally settled in and led his team on a 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter to narrow Tennessee’s lead to seven.
Eight minutes of game clock later, Mayfield literally hushed the 100,000-plus fans at Neyland Stadium that night with a touchdown to Sterling Shepard with 40 seconds left in regulation to force overtime. He then bullied his way into the endzone from the goal line in the first extra period and found Shepard again for an 18-yard score in the second overtime to propel Oklahoma to a 31-24 win.
The magical night foreshadowed Mayfield’s next three years at Oklahoma. And as the stages grew bigger, he kept relying on the words Riley shared with him at Tennessee.
No moment seemed too big for Mayfield, who carried Oklahoma to wins over No. 4 Baylor, No. 11 TCU and No. 9 Oklahoma State to close the 2015 regular season and a College Football Playoff berth.
Mayfield’s breakout year ended on a sour note, however, after Clemson topped Oklahoma 37-17 in the playoff semifinals. The beginning of OU’s 2016 season didn’t provide any more promise with Houston and Ohio State beating Oklahoma in the first three weeks of its season.
“I think that was the biggest stride I made,” Mayfield said. “After the Ohio State game and going into the bye week and realizing that I’m in this position for a reason, and I’ve had success for a reason. I’ve worked hard, but I got to get back to the basics and just do what got me here.”
Mayfield promised he wouldn’t let his team down again.
The Sooners went 9-0 in Big 12 play after the Buckeyes loss, including a 38-20 win over Oklahoma State to clinch their second-consecutive Big 12 Championship. After the 2016 Bedlam game, Mayfield revealed a shirt he wore under his pads that already proclaimed OU as back-to-back Big 12 champions.
The Sooners missed the College Football Playoff in 2016 and settled for a date with with Auburn in New Orleans. On Jan. 2, the day of the Sugar Bowl, Mayfield posted a picture of himself following the Ohio State loss to his Instagram account. In the post’s caption, Mayfield referred to the night he lost to the Buckeyes as the day he “looked failure in the face.”
The humbling experience refueled Mayfield’s fire, who closed his 2016 season with 296 yards passing and two touchdowns in a 36-19 win over Auburn.
Mayfield could’ve left school to enter the 2017 NFL Draft. But a Sugar Bowl win was far from his ultimate goal. He and Riley had more work to do.
• • •
Mayfield’s competitiveness transcends the football field.
One night in 2015, Mayfield found himself running on a Norman High School field in the pouring rain at 9:30 p.m. in a collared shirt, jeans and Converse sneakers.
He and then-girlfriend Baillie Burmaster, a former Oklahoma State soccer player, debated who was in better shape. The two were at Trevor and Connor Knight’s house blocks from Norman High with roughly 15 other people.
Oklahoma senior fullback Jaxon Uhles, Mayfield’s roommate and close friend, remembers Burmaster telling Mayfield he couldn’t pass her team’s fitness test — the Manchester United Fitness Test — which the hyper-competitive Mayfield guaranteed he could complete.
“So she said, ‘Let’s go do it right now,’” Uhles recalled.
Mayfield, of course, finished the test. But the fiery anytime, anywhere side of Mayfield, as well as an off-the-field issue the spring after his 2016 season, has made him one of the most polarizing figures in college football.
Mayfield provided opposing fans with easy “College GameDay” sign fodder when he was charged with public intoxication, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and fleeing in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Feb. 25.
The quarterback made more headlines after planting a flag at Ohio State, which he a few days later apologized for. He was caught on video telling Baylor players he was their “daddy” after they talked smack to him.
“I’m not going to back down,” Mayfield said of teams’ talking trash to him. “I have fun with it and I enjoy it.”
But none of Mayfield’s previous antics could match him yelling “f*ck you” and grabbing his crotch while looking at the Kansas sideline during a chippy game Nov. 18.
The outburst prompted Riley, who was promoted to Oklahoma’s head coach on June 7, to strip Mayfield of his captain status and not start him for his final home game and Senior Day.
“No matter how long I go 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,” an emotional Riley said, breaking down at times, in announcing Mayfield’s Senior Day punishment two days later. “We’ve been through a lot together … I’m proud as hell to be his coach.”
Despite Mayfield’s antics, the marriage of Mayfield’s skill and Riley’s play calling has worked. The two could’ve posted video-game numbers at East Carolina, but they’ve complemented each other for the past three seasons and developed one of the most productive offenses in the country. Riley and Mayfield’s prosperous relationship has evolved into a team ranked No. 2 in the country and two wins from winning the school’s eighth national championship.
Mayfield will lead Oklahoma as he always has, from hitting the whip as a scout-team leader in 2014 as his teammates danced around him to Oklahoma offensive tackle Orlando Brown carrying Mayfield’s jersey to the coin toss for OU’s final home game.
For all the cheers, Mayfield could also recite a laundry list of doubters who told him he wasn’t good enough. It’s hard for him to avoid hearing negative things about himself when every part of his career is dissected on television, and he can’t escape the comments he receives on social media.
But he doesn’t try to forget any of it. He keeps a running tab of all his slights and goals in two columns on a dry-erase board beside his locker.
“If somebody comes out and says something negative about him, he’ll take that to heart,” Uhles said. “I think that’s why he’s so great. People have not given him the time of day until this year, and he likes proving people wrong.”
• • •
A year ago on Saturday night, Mayfield was asked by Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson if he was nervous before the 2016 Heisman ceremony, to which he admitted he wasn’t — he didn’t even prepare a speech.
Jackson asked if he was serious.
“Yeah,” Mayfield replied before Jackson won in a landslide. “You’re going to win.”
On Saturday, the roles will be reversed. Mayfield, who dreamed of winning the award as a young Sooner fan growing up in Austin, Texas, will be the one who needs to have a speech prepared.
Mayfield will be joined by Jackson and Stanford’s Bryce Love as finalists.
Neither of the challengers sitting next to him at PlayStation Theatre, however, has a journey as movie script-esque as Mayfield, neither of them has elevated their team to a second College Football Playoff berth in three years and neither is as fueled by their doubters as he is.
“He’s been everything you wish for in a quarterback,” Stoops said. “He has energy, brings energy, makes everybody around him better. Keeps everybody interested and excited.
“All of it.”
But leaving New York with the Heisman Trophy in tow isn’t why he came back for his senior year. He’ll have the opportunity to do what Jason White and Sam Bradford couldn’t, with the Sooners two wins from college football’s ultimate prize.
Mayfield will go down as one of the best to ever play for Oklahoma, regardless, but after Oklahoma’s 41-17 win over TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game on Dec. 2, Mayfield was asked on stage during the trophy presentation if he thought he’d done enough to win a Heisman.
“I’m not worried about that,” he replied.
“I’m going for a national title.”