We’ve seen it before. He did it when he was introduced as Oklahoma’s brand new head coach back on June 7. He stopped to thank outgoing Bob Stoops, and as the enormity of his new world hit him, he needed a moment to rein in his emotions and gather his words. Got a little choked up about his family, too.
Then tonight, we saw Baker Mayfield cry.
That was a first.
Standing in the Red Room after practice, an audience full of reporters and a score of cameras delivering Mayfield’s message into the ether, Mayfield teared up when asked about his coach. He teared up again when asked about not getting to start on Senior Day. And he teared up yet again when asked about his family.
“If I could go back,” Mayfield said, “I’d completely do it differently. But I can’t do that. I can only move forward now and show people that’s not who I want to be.”
Young and cocky, smooth and brash, Mayfield peeled back his hard, outer layers and revealed a previously unseen softer side.
Grabbing your crotch on national TV and lobbing F-bombs across the field at your opponent, then being suspended for the start of your final home game and losing your captaincy, apparently turns grown men into big ol’ softies.
That is Mayfield’s lot, his punishment for acting immature and vulgar during a 41-3 victory over Kansas last Saturday in Lawrence.
Riley said Monday that Mayfield won’t start this week against West Virginia (he will play, but Riley declined to say exactly when he’ll come into the game), and that he won’t be a captain this week.
If you think that’s not real punishment, then you don’t know Mayfield.
“Playing at OU,” he said through tears, “is something I always dreamed of. So, yeah. Not starting is, it is what it is. But not being a team captain is something that’s so much more. It’d be hard if it was a regular game, but it being my last regular-season game here, ever, it’s gonna be tough. Saturday was already gonna be an emotional one, but this one’s gonna be hard to handle.”
Mayfield said he still has to be himself, and that means leading his teammates every day and getting them fired up on game day. But he can be smarter about how he conducts himself.
“I can’t let this change who I am,” he said. “I can just handle myself better. My actions need to reflect on who I aspire to be and who I want to be, who I want that image to portray, who I want kids to see and look up to.”
Let’s be honest, here. This is all a bit of an overreaction.
Mayfield didn’t punch a woman. Didn’t threaten a parking attendant. Didn’t break NCAA rules. Didn’t drive drunk. Didn’t fail a drug test. Didn’t fall out of the back of a truck.
He didn’t even get into a fight on the field.
He grabbed his crotch and dog-cussed his opponent. Certainly not an act becoming of an Oklahoma quarterback, but hardly something over which Sooner Nation or the college football world at large should gnash teeth.
I won’t judge Mayfield here because when I played high school football, I did much, much worse, just about every Friday night, than anything Mayfield did on Saturday.
Football isn’t just a physical game, it’s legal combat. And the Jayhawks’ premeditated cheap shots throughout the game got Mayfield riled up. I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing, or worse. In fact, none of us can.
But none of us are the quarterback of the Oklahoma Sooners. Mayfield needs to understand his place in the universe. His position provides many great benefits, but also requires great restraint.
Still, Riley said the decision to suspend Mayfield, even for just the beginning of the WVU game — Is that one play? One series? One quarter? — was “tough to describe, again, because I see both sides of it.
“I see the side that says it’s inexcusable. It’s not what we want in this program. And it’s not going to be acceptable here. This program has very high standards. This university has very high standards. And when they’re not met, there has to be consequences.
“But at the same time, he’s a young person. When I was his age, I made a lot of mistakes, too. I bet everybody in this room did. That’s part of it. There’s a growing process. He’s owned it like a man. I’m proud of the way that he’s handled it. … This darn sure doesn’t, in my mind and in my opinion and shouldn’t in anyone else’s either, taint all the great things he’s accomplished here on and off the field. The impact he’s had in the community, the impact that he’s had on this university … it’s been difficult to measure how important he’s been. That doesn’t change that fact to me at all.”
Were Monday’s tears genuine? Were the cracking voices real? Were the long pauses rehearsed?
Only the hardest of cynics, or wearers of orange — burnt or bright — will proceed with conviction that Riley and Mayfield were players in a ruse, contrived to tug on our own emotions and portray them as sympathetic figures.
By all appearances, their emotions seemed genuine. Or maybe I’m just naïve.
“No matter how long I go coaching, whatever the rest of my career ends up being like, I don’t know that I’ll ever have a player that’s as special to me as he is,” Riley said before a 30-second pause. “We’ve been through a lot together. He’s a tremendous teammate. He’s the best football player in America. He’s got a great heart that a lot of people don’t get a chance to see like I do. And I’m proud as hell to be his coach.”
“He’s a guy that’s very special to me,” Mayfield said. “He’s like a father figure to me. … He knows me as good as anybody in the world. It’s a special relationship. But he nailed it on the head today. We’ve been through a lot together, ups and downs.
“I put coach Riley in a terrible spot,” Mayfield added. “It’s not a decision that any coach wants to make, but it was necessary. It was a hard conversation, because he wants the best for me. It was difficult, and our relationship and how close we are made it a hard conversation to have.
“I actually understand it. I knew that something needed to be done. Of all things, I feel worse now because of the spot that I put them in. It’s not something that your coach wants to do, but there’s necessary things and punishments and consequences for actions like I did on Saturday.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.