Where OU's Baker Mayfield got the boulder-sized chip on his shoulder

NORMAN, Okla. — It’s always something. Or there’s always something. No matter how dubious, how unintentional, how slight. Baker Mayfield hears it, or hears of it — and he thumbs another entry into the Notes app on his iPhone.

“It’s anything that comes to mind,” Mayfield says — and there’s always something coming to mind, another reminder of people who doubt him, another chunk of fodder for the fire that fuels Oklahoma’s quarterback.

No. 14-ranked Oklahoma hosts No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday, a marquee nonconference matchup at any time. But this year, despite Oklahoma’s loss to Houston in the season opener, there are College Football Playoff implications. And perhaps because of that loss to Houston, there’s a quarterback with a batch of new entries on “the list.”

By now most college football fans know Mayfield’s story, how he went from overlooked high school standout to walk-on at Texas Tech to starter as a true freshman to transfer to Oklahoma’s star quarterback. Along the way, he collected enough affronts, real or perceived, that he characterizes the chip on his shoulder as something more like “a pretty big-sized boulder.”

“He definitely feeds off people doubting,” says Clayton Brady, a friend of Baker’s since their days at Lake Travis High School in suburban Austin, Texas. “If you want to lose at something to him, just tell him he can’t beat you.”

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The list has its roots in middle school, when Mayfield was smaller than his classmates but was convinced he could excel if given the opportunity. It was like a bizarro version of the lists formulated by his older brother Matt, who regularly wrote down plans he wanted to accomplish. Baker’s list was handwritten and hidden in his room, with themes like ‘Too Small, Too Slow,’ and the like.

It has evolved over the years — new slights, and now he says there are names, too — and been moved to the app, ready to be accessed whenever needed.

“It’s really a reverse way of stating goals,” says Gina Mayfield, Baker’s mother. “He just uses it to fuel his inner Baker.”

Mayfield won’t divulge who or what is on the list. But among those who have almost certainly made the list, at least in the past: Texas and so many other schools — including Oklahoma, initially — that didn’t offer a scholarship to the kid who was seen as a product of a nice offensive system.

Individual candidates include TCU coach Gary Patterson, because Mayfield expected but didn’t receive a scholarship offer (there was a brief public spat between coach and quarterback last December), and Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury (despite Mayfield’s surprise rise to become the Red Raiders’ starter as a freshman walk-on in 2013, the relationship between player and coach deteriorated in a short time to the point where Mayfield transferred away).

Mayfield won’t confirm that either coach (or anyone else) is or has been on the list. Most of his friends and teammates haven’t actually seen it. It’s almost like Bigfoot, except no one doubts its existence — or its effectiveness.

“I’ll harness it if it’s something I can use,” he says.

And last December, he told reporters before the Orange Bowl: “It’s about how you take in all the influence on the outside. … I use it as positive influence for me, but I do kind of create an extra energy.”

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Mayfield’s public persona is anything but angry. He’s brash and happy-go-lucky, and he plays the same way, a barely restrained improv act that frustrates opponents and produces plenty of highlights. But there’s been a consistency, too, in that even as Mayfield has proven many doubters wrong, he’s continued to find new reasons for motivation.

“He has a chip every day about something,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops says. “I don’t know what it will be, but he’s just naturally that way. It’s been good for him.”

Good for Oklahoma, too. Last season, Mayfield disproved the doubters. After beating out Trevor Knight to win the starting job, he led the Sooners to the Big 12 championship and into the Playoff. He finished fourth in the Heisman voting, and if he didn’t get a trip to New York and Oklahoma didn’t make it to the championship game, falling to Clemson in the Orange Bowl, it was still heady stuff.

Then, last summer, the Big 12’s faculty athletic representatives voted to allow walk-ons to transfer within the conference without losing a year of eligibility. It was retroactive, meaning Mayfield, who’d left Texas Tech after his freshman season in 2013 to walk on at Oklahoma and essentially lost his sophomore season, would be a junior this year rather than a senior.

But it took two votes. Initially, the faculty reps denied the change. Yeah, Mayfield was angry, but he calmed down after a call from Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, who told him there was a chance the decision wasn’t final. The next day, after a very slight tweak to the wording, the Big 12 took another vote.

The result: Mayfield got that year of eligibility back.

“It felt like a weight lifted off my shoulder,” he says. “It was such a long process of getting that year back.”

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And presumably, there was no longer all that much to be mad about. Or so you’d think. But a few days before the season opener, Mayfield just laughed at the idea there wasn’t much left of that boulder on his shoulder.

There’s the ever-present skepticism about whether Mayfield, who’s listed at 6-foot-1 but might actually be a couple of inches shorter, can play at the next level.

“I take it to heart,” he says, “when they say I’m not an NFL quarterback.”

But that’s presumably a while off. Although he could declare early for the NFL Draft, Mayfield, who is on schedule to graduate in May with a communications degree, plans to return to Oklahoma for his senior season in 2017.

And before this season kicked off, Mayfield had already found more reason for motivation.

“I’ve got to prove myself, that it wasn’t just one good year,” he said. “I’ve got to prove — people talk about it all the time, the myth of the sophomore slump.”

(Mayfield is actually a fourth-year junior, but let’s go with it.)

“I’ve got to prove going into my second year here that this is exactly who I am,” he said. “… It’s not just a one-year, surprise thing.”

It’s unclear who was suggesting those types of things about Mayfield. He entered the season on the short list of Heisman candidates. Oklahoma started the season ranked in the Top 5 by just about everyone, a trendy pick to reach the Playoff again. But then, the slights haven’t always had to be grounded in reality.

“It’s kind of how he’s wired,” says Ty Darlington, the former Oklahoma center who completed his eligibility last season but remains close to Mayfield. “Having a chip on his shoulder is a big part of who he is. At times he can go to great lengths to create a chip that really isn’t there. At some point, that’s the only problem with that strategy: what about when people stop hating or doubting you? What do you find to motivate you then?”

But that wasn’t an issue for long. A few days before the season kicked off, ESPN analyst Jonathan Vilma opined that Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. was better than Mayfield.

“It was duly noted,” Darlington says. “He had seen (the video clip) many times.”

And then, of course, Ward went out and played very well. Mayfield wasn’t as good as he’s routinely been. Houston won, making one of the season’s earliest statements. And that led to statements that went right into Mayfield’s Notes app.

To reach the Playoff, the Sooners almost certainly have to win out. Given their performance against Houston, not many people see that happening. And at least for the moment — it’s way too early for this, but there it is— Mayfield has dropped off the Heisman radar.

All of which perhaps puts the Oklahoma quarterback in the perfect frame of mind.

“He’s got a whole new crusade,” says James Mayfield, Baker’s father. “He’s been refueled.”


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