LOS ANGELES — Baker Mayfield knows how to make an entrance.
The Heisman Trophy winner has been conspicuously absent from all media activities since Oklahoma arrived in Los Angeles for the Rose Bowl. He skipped Disneyland on Wednesday and offensive interviews on Friday – taking part in practices only.
Saturday morning dawned for the full-scale media day, and the announcement preceded the arrival of the Oklahoma team bus that Mayfield would not be in attendance due to the same flu-like ailment that has grounded his availability since Christmas. His podium adorned by banners with his name and picture sat empty in the corner of the L.A. Hotel Downtown ballroom while the rest of his coaches and teammates were scattered all over the floor answering an endless stream of questions about the health and status of their quarterback.
Suddenly – 25 minutes into the 45-minute window for the Sooners – Mayfield slipped quietly through a back door and took his seat behind the microphone. It was as if the room tilted on its access as a swarm scurried across the crowded room to gather in front of him even before an announcement came over the speakers.
“Baker Mayfield is now available.”
This was exactly the kind of circus that always seems to swell around the dramatic Sooners playmaker wherever he goes, whether it’s planting the flag on the “O” at Ohio State or gesturing profanely to his critics in the Kansas grandstands.
Mayfield looked like someone nursing a hangover, pale and weak, as he slumped toward the microphone. His voice was hoarse as he sipped coffee with honey and lemon – “I’m tired of drinking tea” – but his defiance was in mid-season form.
“I’m not dying,” he said. “But I don’t feel 100 percent right now.”
The guy who will be most responsible whether or not Oklahoma can beat Georgia in Monday’s Rose Bowl semifinal of the College Football Playoff was watching the start of the Sooners’ media session on television from his sick bed when the first six questions to head coach Lincoln Riley all pertained to his quarterback’s health. He decided he needed to summon a driver and make his way across town to his assigned seat on the dais – conveniently well out of breathing distance from his teammates.
“The first question was about me,” Mayfield explained of his fashionably late arrival. “Coaches and teammates shouldn’t have to answer questions on my behalf. This isn’t about me. It’s about Oklahoma. … I got sick of it, and I know they’re tired of it, too.”
It’s very hard to distinguish the difference between Mayfield and Oklahoma. His energy is the driving force behind a prolific Sooners offense. Football is a team sport, but Mayfield’s scrambling and passing elevates the Sooners to championship caliber.
Mayfield is a player who likes to stir the pot. He wore a T-shirt that read “Traitor” when he returned to his original collegiate post at Texas Tech. He delivered a “spanking” in reminding Baylor “who daddy is.”
The closest thing to belligerent the weakened Mayfield got Saturday was a firm retort to the fact the Sooners are trending from toss-up to 2.5-point underdogs to Georgia.
“We’re not an underdog,” he said. “We’re not an underdog.”
His strength will be key to the direction the Rose Bowl takes. Before his arrival, his teammates universally claimed his illness was not an issue. They swear he’s been fine in practice even if he wasn’t always his usual self. On Friday, he screamed himself hoarse in his typical leadership way even if his energy was a bit low.
“I can’t tell, he’s been talking the same crap to me,” said Sooners pass rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. “Baker’s been practicing just fine and hasn’t missed a rep, so I’m confident he’ll be ready. He’s just missing all the media stuff and that’s hurting me, too, because I’m getting all his interview stuff.”
Mark Andrews, Oklahoma’s Mackey Award winning tight end, snuffed out any concerns that Mayfield will be anything less than 100 percent come game time.
“Confidence is incredibly high,” Andrews insisted. “These last couple practices have been some of the best we’ve had all year, really flying around and Baker’s played really good. Being sick he may have been a little bit more quiet one or two days, but he’s been doing his job.”
Riley offered more a modest take.
“I think he’ll be ready to play,” he said. “Will he be at 100 percent physically? We’ll see. But he’s not going to miss this one.”
Georgia players aren’t getting distracted by the sickness drama, preparing to face the full Mayfield. Beware the injured player, and all that.
“I know he’s a fierce competitor,” said Georgia’s Butkus Award winning linebacker Roquan Smith. “If it was me, if I was sick or something, and I was in those shoes I would do anything I could to get out there and play with my brothers. It’s the Rose Bowl, the granddad of them all. So I’m sure he’ll do everything in his power to make it out.”
Mayfield may not have to be up to talking his usual trash, but he remains as focused as ever on the only thing that matters. He didn’t return to Oklahoma for his senior season just to win a Heisman Trophy. He got a taste of the playoffs in 2015 when the Sooners were decisively eliminated by Clemson in the 2015 semifinals, and suffering another early exit would feel worse than any illness.
“That was a bitter taste,” he said. “That’s something you never want to feel again. …”