Part 2 of our draft season series on Baker Mayfield, the 2018 draft’s most fascinating prospect on and off the field
AUSTIN — At Lake Travis High School, on the gated outskirts of Texas’ capital city, there’s a tradition to honor senior football players. Parents cut plywood into silhouettes shaped like Cavaliers and paint the boys’ names and numbers onto the wood, to be displayed on a prominent fence on the sprawling campus. When Baker Mayfield was a senior, a handful of boys from rival Westlake High School, under cover of darkness, stole his Cav-man off the fence.
Whether they stole more than one cavalier or just Mayfield’s is not known—local history is hazy on this point. We know this: Mayfield and his friends weren’t going to let the aggression stand. Mayfield and teammate/best friend Zach Austin drove to the local Whataburger, which remains the most popular late-night hangout for Lake Travis students. They had a hunch the Westlake boys would be there, preening on enemy turf.
“Sometimes they would come there for a confrontation,” Austin says. “Sure enough, there were five Westlake kids in there, and they started talking trash to us and Baker was right there talking trash, and we kind of made them leave. They jumped in their car and waved the Cav-man at us as they sped off.”
A Mayfield-led team never lost to Westlake, with Lake Travis beating their rivals 35-7 in the 2011 regular season, and 14-11 in the 2012 playoffs, with Mayfield dragging an injury-plagued roster to victory. The episode foretold what would become Mayfield’s personal ethos: Embrace the insults and slights, and feed off of them.
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It’s why you saw him taunt the Kansas sideline by grabbing his crotch after they refused to shake his hand, and why he planted the OU flag on the midfield logo at Ohio State, after getting into an argument with some over-served Buckeye fans. Though the one incident Mayfield’s supporters have the most trouble defending came last February; Fayetteville (Ark.) police arrested him after he tried to run away from officers questioning him about a 2 a.m. fight. Mayfield, who had been visiting friends with his girlfriend, said he was trying to break it up. Put it all under the NFL draft microscope, and you get the analysis Cleveland.com procured from three anonymous NFL sources last week.
“Baker has a pattern of disrespect,” a scout told Mary Kay Cabot. “Off-the-field, he’s Johnny Manziel.”
Said a coach: “He needs work. He’s going to be a challenge.”
Said a high-level NFL personnel executive, per Cabot: “He has not shown anywhere near enough emotional maturity to handle what’s coming his way. ... A lot of Manziel characteristics.”
It’s that comparison that irks people like Austin and others in the Lake Travis community who are close to Mayfield. For all the high-profile prospects in the 2018 draft, Mayfield’s destination is arguably the biggest unknown. One could see him being seriously considered by the Cleveland Browns with the No. 1 overall selection, or as far back as the end of the first round. Much will hinge on whether evaluators believe the comparison to Manziel—the former Heisman Trophy winner and first-round pick who flamed out of the NFL after two short seasons with the Browns—is justified, or bunk.
“I honestly don’t understand the comparison off the field,” Austin says. “From what I heard, Johnny had a lot of issues. Knowing Baker, I can tell you right now, it’s not a good comparison.”
Austin, who has been one of Mayfield's closest friends since middle school, says he often tried to convince Mayfield to enjoy the party scene at Lake Travis on the weekends, especially after football wins, but Mayfield would rather stay home and play Halo 3 on Xbox.
“He never went out,” says Austin, who is now working toward a graduate degree in personal finance. “He wanted to stay away from that scene. I know that sounds unbelievable, and it may sound like I’m trying to hide something, but he never went out.
Says former Lake Travis assistant Ryan Priem: “He was a video game nerd. We never had to worry about any of them partying. It was really nice, because you didn’t have to worry about it. I’ve been in places where you dreaded Fridays.”
Mayfield floated the idea of abandoning football and becoming a professional Halo player, Austin says, while reeling from a disappointing start to the football season on the freshman team. Mayfield was set to be benched after two games, but the quarterback who was supposed to take his spot suffered a weightlifting injury. During that time, and throughout the rest of his career, coaches describe him as the consummate teammate.
“The Baker I know does not draw attention to himself off the field,” said Lake Travis assistant coach Jonathan Coats. “He doesn’t seek any kind of fame. He never had that gigantic personality that some people do. He never got in trouble with us, not for being late, never a grade problem. The dude was a leader and we counted on him.”
• THE FALL OF JOHNNY MANZIEL: How it all went so wrong in Cleveland.
In Mayfield’s third year, despite coaches acknowledging Mayfield possessed a better arm than the senior quarterback ahead of him, they gave senior Collin Lagasse the starting nod for combined running and passing ability. On the sixth play of the season, Lagasse suffered a shoulder injury on a scramble down the right sideline. With Mayfield under center, they went 16-0 and won the 4A title game over Midway in Waco.
“I think all of that absolutely made his perspective what it is,” his mother, Gina Mayfield says. “You don’t get to a high level and stay there without extremely hard work and always having to strive. So I think the things that happened to him early on, made him able to do what he needed to do to be successful.”
Then came Baker’s a-ha moment, Gina says, when a labor of love morphed into an inflexible and unflinching sense of self-confidence. At an Elite 11 qualifying camp in Dallas in 2011, Mayfield realized what he was capable of, through yet another slight.
“I sat in front of all these QB experts,” Mayfield says. “I threw in front of some of these guys in high school, and I could throw then just like I can now, and they sat there and ooh’d and aah’d over these other guys. That was the first qualifying camp for Elite 11, and the last one I ever went to.”
Gina had driven him to Dallas for the prestigious camp run by former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer and despite her casual fanhood of the sport, she could see something was off. “We were naïve,” Gina says. “These guys that everybody was touting and trying to recruit, he was side by side, and beat them, and it didn’t get portrayed that way. We felt it was designed for certain people to be propped up. It made Baker aware. It stopped being about what other people said, and started being about what he knew he could do.”
The rest of the story is well-documented: He walked on at Texas Tech after earning scholarship offers from FAU, Rice and Washington State, three schools he had little interest in. After walking on and winning the starting job at Tech, he fell out with the coaching staff and walked on at Oklahoma. He spent hours diving into a new playbook and nights sneaking into the stadium in Norman to visualize and walk-through plays on the turf.
“He came in already believing he was the guy,” says Oklahoma linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. “At first people were like, huh? But he earned the respect so fast. When he was battling with Trevor Knight, that was some of the craziest football I’ve ever seen. He was making guys miss, then throwing a 40-yard bomb into a tight window.
“On the first day, it looked like he played with those receivers for 10 years. When we got back in the locker room all the receivers were like, that’s the guy I want.”
What often looked like natural ability and intuition to outsiders and newcomers was Mayfield’s work ethic manifesting itself, friends and coaches say. That’s Lake Travis head coach Hank Carter’s main beef with the Manziel comparison.
“I’d say it’s reckless to compare them. Baker has never been involved in something where he’s causing harm to someone, ever,” Carter says. “I’ve never heard anyone question Baker’s love for football. I’ve never heard anyone question Baker’s dedication in the film room, or on the practice field, or in the offseason. His ability to be coached. Those are some of the things the media was putting out there, true or not. But you don’t hear anyone saying that about Baker because it’s not true.”
There was ample opportunity for violence over the years. When Mayfield transferred from Texas Tech, every alumni in Austin who recognized him was looking for trouble, says John Pate, a Lake Travis dad whose son played with Mayfield.
“All the stories I heard was that when he was in college and the boys were on 6th street and he got confronted, he booked it out of there as soon as possible,” Pate says. After the whole TTU thing, they hated Baker, and he caught hell from every alumni on the planet. He had to leave his brother and my son and the other boys to handle it. He could’ve fought a lot and didn’t do it.”
The Arkansas arrest is what will give NFL teams pause. When Pate saw James and Gina Mayfield in a restaurant after the incident made news, James mused, “I told Baker, nothing good happens in Arkansas.” The most common defense among those close to Mayfield—“He’s 22”—won’t be very convincing for evaluators tasked with selecting a face of the franchise this spring. Gina says it’s truly Baker’s biggest regret.
“Baker prided himself on never wanting to be that person that let people down, that did those things,” she says. “And he and I knew the comparisons to Johnny would come after that.
“At the end of the day that will work itself out. It’s not a life or death sentence. And when people meet him they’ll know.”
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