Baker Mayfield has always found solace between the white lines of a football field. As a too-small kid, the field is where he found equal footing playing against his much bigger friends in the backyard and in the school yard. In high school, the field is where he silenced "he looks like Opie" snickers by winning a Texas state title and also found an emotional oasis as his family moved from home to home, his parents secretly struggling with their finances. In college, he has found peace between the sidelines of some of the most raucous fields in the history of football, from Neyland Stadium to the Cotton Bowl.
When the Oklahoma Sooners begin their season against UTEP on Sept. 2, Mayfield will once again step onto the green pastures of Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium with a sigh of relief. It is what he hopes will be the final step away from the most difficult offseason of his 22 years.
"I used to laugh at people for their mistakes, but then I'm sitting there," he recalls now. "I was like, well, it can happen in just about 30 seconds. The biggest mistake of your life."
In an interview with E:60, airing Sunday at 9 a.m. ET, on ESPN, the Heisman Trophy candidate addresses his Feb. 25 arrest in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He was in town visiting friends with his girlfriend, Morgan Mayberry. Around 2:30 a.m., Fayetteville Police responded to an altercation. When they arrived, they found Mayfield nearby. He was intoxicated and agitated. After some shouting back and forth, the quarterback tried to run. He ended up in jail.
The video of his attempt to flee became an internet sensation. When asked if there was anything about that night he wishes he could clarify for the public, he instead owned it.
"I don't know if there's anything that I could really say. I mean the video kind of speaks for itself. I didn't harm anybody. I'd love to take it back, making the police officer's job very difficult and not just listening to them. That would be the one thing that I'd want to take back and change. I really put myself in a situation that just shouldn't have happened."
The most difficult aspect of that long night and morning was calling home to Austin, Texas, the first tough conversation in a series of chats and apologies that continues to this day.
"Mom and Dad, by far the hardest one," Mayfield said. "It was a rough one you know because that's the first people you think about letting them down ... first thing I said was, 'I'm sorry.' And so, that was hard to even get those words out of my mouth."
His mother, Gina, recalled every second of that night. "As any parent who gets a phone call at 3:20 in the morning in a dead sleep, you are concerned ... but he was sobbing and he was apologizing and it truly did devastate him to have to make that phone call. So he just, he was just apologizing for being stupid."
"He's just damn lucky he didn't get hurt," added his father, James, a former walk-on QB at Houston. "But just the stupidity of it. And once we got the details, it was even dumber."
After three days of silence ("I didn't leave the house, I just couldn't," Mayfield said) his self-penned apology was posted to his social media accounts. He has since reached a plea bargain resulting in $480 in fines for fleeing, disorderly conduct and public intoxication. The University of Oklahoma imposed 35 hours of community service and required him to participate in alcohol education services.
Mayfield said those punishments felt minuscule compared to the shadow that now follows him around. The framing of his misstep couldn't have been worse. December had seen the release of video that showed teammate Joe Mixon punching a woman and also the revelation that Mayfield's top receiver, Dede Westbrook, had been arrested on domestic violence charges three years earlier.
To many, Mayfield's incident felt like "here we go again." To others, it felt like the final piece of evidence that the "spoiled brat" talk was legitimate.
Mayfield knew all of the above would happen and he knew it instantly. He also knew he wasn't the person being described. When it came to his playing career, he was used to hearing whatever, whenever. Hearing about himself as a person was more difficult.
"I was in a bad place there for a long time because I felt like I had disappointed a lot more than just myself and my teammates. I mean if they didn't know anything about me they would think that I'm some drunk college kid that's just prone to make mistakes and thinks he's full of himself and can get away with anything ... I know that's not who I am and the people around here that are close to me know that's not who I am."
His new head coach, Lincoln Riley, agrees.
"Any time you have something like that as a coach, you look at it and you say, all right, is this a repeated behavior? Is this a guy that's caused a lot of problems or was this an isolated incident where a guy made a mistake?" says Riley, who was promoted from offensive coordinator when longtime head coach Bob Stoops retired in June. "I've had him now for three years, that's the first thing even close to anything like that. And so it was tough because you knew with the way the public is and with him being such a high-profile athlete, you knew the kind of hit you know that he was going to take. The things he was going to have to endure. Despite any punishment that we could ever give him here, there's nothing that could compare to him just having to go through that."
That's the price of being high profile, which Mayfield has always been. His meteoric rise and fall at Texas Tech, unexpected ascension at Oklahoma and his rewriting of transfer eligibility rules would have been enough. But when one mixes in his gunslinger playing style, incessant smack talk, a YouTube résumé that includes lip-syncing to Katy Perry in a tutu, and a pair of top-four Heisman voting appearances, he was already one of college football's most polarizing stars.
When you're a star, the price for living your highs in the spotlight will always be enduring your lows in front of that same audience.
"Everybody says, oh well, you know, who hasn't done something when they're that age, but they don't have it that public. They don't have to endure all those things," added Gina Mayfield, in a full-on mom scolding tone, pointed directly at her son. "Baker knows that's part of what comes with the fact that you're at the Heisman. You're here, at this level. You cannot do those things. Period. There is no wiggle room."
Mayfield's parents say they are bracing themselves for the reaction their son will receive during Big 12 road games this fall. Even before the arrest, they never sat in the seats provided to families, instead buying tickets on StubHub and wandering the grandstands in a search for solitude. People used to tell them that was a little crazy. Now everyone thinks it's genius.
As for their son, he's never been one to shy away from stoking the fires of an on-field opponent or hostile crowd. This year will be no different and it's already started. In the spring he received a poster tube in the mail at his off-campus rental house. The return address was Stillwater, Oklahoma, so he assumed it was a poster of his mug shot. When he opened it, the package popped and blew Oklahoma State orange and black glitter all over the den.
"I know that some of these away games are going to be very entertaining. You know I'm going to enjoy going to Stillwater. That's definitely going to be fun. Unfortunately we played at West Virginia last year or else they would probably be the most entertaining group of people. I'm gonna see handcuffs and my mug shot, all of that stuff. I hope so. Honestly, I'd be disappointed if they didn't. That's why I love college football. And honestly, I kind of deserve it. No one brought this on me but myself."
Next weekend, as it has been his entire life, he knows the football field will once again be waiting.
"I can't change. You know I cannot make those mistakes, yes. But I can't change. Because that's who ... that's what's got me here. So I've got to have fun. I've got to make a difference and be energetic and I'm still that fiery person that's made me get to the spot where I'm at."