The trash-talking, flag-planting, TD-making genius of Baker Mayfield

From ESPN - December 7, 2017

Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN & ESPN App), Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield surely will be named the winner of the 83rd Heisman Trophy -- a moment that will mark the culmination of one of the most improbable rises in college football history.

Mayfield did not start the season opener of his high school junior year.

He walked on at Texas Tech.

And he transferred to Oklahoma without invitation, much less a scholarship.

Yet all along the way, Mayfield defied the odds, utilizing unrivaled self-confidence and unmatched competitive spirit. Tom Herman, coach of the rival Longhorns, calls Mayfield college football's "ultimate competitor."

That ubercompetitive, ultraconfident mentality, full of trash-talking, flag-planting -- and in one case, crotch-grabbing -- swagger has ruffled Mayfield's opponents over the years.

But as he has backed up his bold antics with a dazzling and continuous display of quarterbacking magic, Mayfield has also won over many of those same opponents. And having gone from an undersized, under-recruited afterthought to one ofcollege football's greatest-ever quarterbacks, Mayfield has earned the respect and admiration of the opposition, as well.

Told through the viewpoint of those he has competed against for wins and positions, this is Mayfield's story, from high school all the way to the Heisman.

Chris Ross remembers all too well the play that convinced him Mayfield was different from all the quarterbacks he'd coached against before. In the fourth round of the Texas Class 4A state playoffs, Ross and Cedar Park faced Mayfield in a rematch from the regular season. Because the teams knew each other well, the game turned into a defensive struggle. Mayfield, however, would deliver the game-turning pass Ross says he will "never forget."

"We blitz a guy through the A-gap, and he's unblocked," said Ross, now on the staff at Boise State. "Baker sees it, slides right into the hit and throws an absolute dart, a touchdown pass, and wins the game. Our guy knocked him out of the game, too.

"How many kids are going to step up and take that hit? As the opposing coach, there's nothing else you can do. It was an unbelievable play only somebody like a Baker Mayfield could make."

That 2011 season actually began with Mayfield watching from the sidelines. But on the fifth play of Lake Travis' opener, starter Collin Lagasse suffered an injury that catapulted Mayfield into the lineup against rival Westlake in Texas' Darrell K Royal-Memorial Stadium. Mayfield won that first game. Then, he took Lake Travis all the way to a Texas record fifth-straight state title.

In the state championship against Hewitt Midway, Mayfield delivered the play of the game, rolling out of an all-out rush to find a receiver for a 17-yard touchdown.

"Once you had it figured out, that did not mean you'd stopped him," said Terry Gambill, Midway's coach that season, who is now at Allen. "When he got pressure, he could keep his eyes down the field and find receivers. He was good at that, even back in those days."

Above all else, though, Mayfield excelled at winning. In two seasons as Lake Travis' starting quarterback, Mayfield went 25-2. And according to those who had to go against him, Mayfield approached every game with a unique brazenness.

"He had that 'it factor' that you do not coach," said Aledo coach Steve Wood, who could not beat Mayfield even with five-star running back Johnathan Gray. "He had just cranked it up then. He was not fist-pumping or carrying on like he does now. But it seemed like he had a different wheel than other kids."

Despite his sterling prep record, Mayfield never became a blue-chip prospect. He was barely over 6-feet tall. And because he lacked prototypical size, the big schools in Texas all passed, most notably TCU. With few options available, Mayfield opted to walk on to Texas Tech.

Yet, while college recruiters did not think much of him, those Mayfield had competed against in high school still saw greatness ahead.

"There's something to be said for kids that win, whether you are 5-8 or 6-8," Wood said. "And Baker Mayfield was one of those guys that was going to make his own way because people were not going to give him anything."

Before becoming his position coach, play-caller and eventually, this season, his head coach, Lincoln Riley actually attempted to dissuade Mayfield from transferring to Oklahoma.

Riley was the offensive coordinator at East Carolina. And Trevor Knight had just quarterbacked the Sooners to a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama as a freshman.

"I was using that when I was trying to recruit him," Riley said. "I was like 'Trevor Knight is going to be the guy there for three years, are you crazy?' I told him that verbatim on the phone."

Mayfield did not listen. And when no one else did, he still believed in himself.

"He had a passion, he had a dream," Knight said. "He went to Texas Tech, realized he was capable of playing at a high level, and he wanted to go where his heart was, his passion was. And so, he decided to go to his dream school."

Before Mayfield would challenge Knight for the starting job, he challenged Oklahoma's defense. Ineligible for a season after transferring, Mayfield ran the scout-team offense and torched the first-team defense on an almost-daily basis.

"Scrambling forever to make a play, the things he does now, he would be doing those in practice," said Eric Striker, an All-American linebacker for Oklahoma that year. "And he liked to make you feel it. He was not just going to do you in, he was going to talk to you about it, too."

Striker said the Oklahoma defense realized Mayfield was a special competitor then. Soon, Knight and Riley would discover the same.

That offseason, Riley arrived from East Carolina as Oklahoma's offensive coordinator, essentially resetting the quarterback situation.

After a grueling, months-long competition, Mayfield was named the starter. By December, he had the Sooners in the College Football Playoff.

"The competition with Baker was difficult, to say the least, simply because the kid is extremely consistent," said Knight, who transferred to Texas A&M for his senior season. "Day in, day out, he brought the same energy, the same passion, and then he made plays."

As flawless as Mayfield's high school record was, his 34-5 record at Oklahoma is even more remarkable. Most remarkable, however, Mayfield has saved his best performances for the rivals and the biggest games in the most difficult of venues.

With beefs and slights, real or imagined, Mayfield thrived in these games, as if he had to stick it to his opponent. And yet, in the wake of those defeats at his hands, those same opponents could not help but appreciate Mayfield's greatness.


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