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 didn’t 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 of college 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’ll “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 didn’t 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 don’t coach,” said Aledo coach Steve Wood, who couldn’t beat Mayfield even with five-star running back Johnathan Gray. “He had just cranked it up then. He wasn’t 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 didn’t 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’re 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t help but appreciate Mayfield’s greatness.
In his first and only trip back to Jones Stadium, where Texas Tech students showed up with T-shirts displaying the word “Traitor” on them, Mayfield outdueled Patrick Mahomes II in one of the wildest offensive outbreaks in college football history. Mahomes broke an FBS record with 819 yards of total offense. But Mayfield countered with seven touchdown passes to get the best of him.
“It was a big game for him, and for us,” said Mahomes, who became a first-round draft choice of the Kansas City Chiefs. “It was cool to be in that environment to get to go back-and-forth. For him to go out and play as well as he did, just showed what kind of competitor he is.”
Mayfield went 3-0 against another rival in Oklahoma State, with the first two deciding the Big 12 championship. Mayfield showed up to the second Bedlam showdown wearing an undershirt with “back to back 2015 & 2016,” as if the result were a foregone conclusion. Before the game in Stillwater this season, Mayfield updated the shirt to say “Back again in 2017.” Then, he passed for 598 yards and five touchdowns to beat Mike Gundy’s Cowboys again.
“I think the two guys over the [time] I’ve been in this league that can [best] make a play when it doesn’t go their way is Vince Young and Mayfield,” said Gundy, comparing Mayfield to the Texas legend. “I would say at this point he’s better than Vince at ad-libbing and making a big play out of nothing.”
As for the Longhorns, Mayfield actually dropped his first Red River Showdown. But the Austin native came back to pass for 390 yards in a win last year. Then this season, he hit tight end Mark Andrews for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“He is tremendously talented as a passer, has great arm strength, is extremely accurate and can make all of the throws. That makes it difficult enough,” Herman said. “But where he really hurts you is when you do everything right, a play breaks down and he’s able to improvise, scramble and run the ball or make big plays down field.
“On top of that, he can will his team to victory.”
Mayfield did just that in the second half of a win at Ohio State in Week 2 of this season.
Afterward, the media focus was on Mayfield brashly planting the Oklahoma flag at midfield of The Shoe — a salvo back at the Buckeyes, who, in Mayfield’s words, had “embarrassed” the Sooners in Norman the year before.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, however, was more focused on how Mayfield dominated his team in the rematch.
“I counted at least nine times when he took over the game,” Meyer has said. “He’s a guy that every defensive coordinator has a nightmare over.”
Gary Patterson’s Mayfield nightmare is finally over, as the TCU coach surely will be glad to never face him again. Mayfield defeated the team he first wanted to play for four times, including last week in the Big 12 championship game.
Coming out of Lake Travis, Mayfield had been banking on a scholarship offer from TCU that never came.
Mayfield never forgot it, either.
Days before facing Clemson in the playoff semifinal two years ago, Mayfield, unprompted, said TCU “hung me out to dry.”
As competitors, the tension between Mayfield and Patterson remained and was revitalized when Mayfield pegged TCU safety Niko Small in the head during pregame warm-ups in their regular-season matchup.
But after their final meeting, Patterson gave Mayfield as high a compliment a defensive coach can give a quarterback.
“He plays quarterback like a defensive guy,” Patterson said. “He could probably be a linebacker.”
Against Kansas last month, Mayfield was set off by an opposing linebacker, as Joe Dineen deliberately didn’t return Mayfield’s handshake attempt at the pregame coin toss.
The snub ignited Mayfield’s competitive fire, which boiled over when he grabbed his crotch and cursed at the Kansas sidelines in the second half, which ultimately got him suspended from starting his final home game the following week.
Yet as chippy as the game got, Dineen said he came to respect Mayfield even more in the aftermath.
“With the trash talk, that’s part of what gives Baker his edge and makes him so good,” Dineen said. “He plays with a chip on his shoulder, and I respect that. That’s what makes him great. He’s used it to his advantage, and obviously, he makes a ton of plays for them.
“Going up against him was fun. And we knew going in it was going to be a really cool experience for us.”
The Mayfield experience isn’t over yet. He has, at the least, one more team in Georgia to infuriate and impress.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who faced Mayfield in the playoff two years ago — and could face him again in the national championship game — isn’t surprised.
Ryan McGee takes a look at Baker Mayfield and how the 3-time winner of the Big 12 has become the face of college football.
“He’s a Heisman guy for a reason. Usually for your team, that means a lot of big plays. Usually, there’s a lot of wins tied to those Heisman guys, that’s for sure,” said Swinney, who coached Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson. “He’s a tough one. He’s a tough one to get ready for because he’s all over the place. He’s kind of at his best when it’s chaotic.
“Baker Mayfield is a great competitor — that’s why he’s had so much success.”
That’s why at Lake Travis, Mayfield went from backup upperclassman to state-champion starter.
That’s why at Oklahoma, he earned a starting job not even his current head coach thought he had a shot at winning.
And that’s why now he’s primed to become the first Heisman winner to start his college career as a walk-on.
“It’s like a story somebody wrote,” Riley said. “Doesn’t even seem real.”