NORMAN, Oklahoma — Ever since naming him the starting quarterback a month ago, Oklahoma staff members haven't been shy about their admiration for walk-on Baker Mayfield.
"Excellent leader," head coach Bob Stoops says.
"Big-time arm," fawns offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley.
"No surprise," read a tweet from Hall of Famer Barry Switzer after Oklahoma announced Mayfield had catapulted to the top of the depth chart.
Mayfield appreciates the praise, but he can't help but chuckle at its irony.
After all, four years ago, the Sooners wouldn't even return his phone calls.
Stoops declined to offer Mayfield a scholarship following his senior season of high school—or even a spot on the team as a walk-on. The situation was crushing to the lifelong Oklahoma fan, who'd spent countless Saturdays during his childhood at Memorial Stadium. Mayfield's father, James, was friends with Sooners assistant Bobby Jack Wright, but when the coach hosted Mayfield for an unofficial visit in the fall of 2011, it became obvious he was only doing his dad a favor.
James Mayfield recalled meeting assistants Josh Heupel and Cale Gundy that day shortly after a win over Texas A&M. At the time, Baker stood just 5'10" and weighed 190 pounds—hardly an ideal frame for a major-college signal caller.
"I could tell by the way they looked at him," James says, "that they were sizing him up."
The Mayfields returned to their hometown of Austin, Texas, the following day and never heard from Oklahoma again. James left multiple messages for Wright in the ensuing months, but the coach didn't respond to any of them.
"Oklahoma is where he'd always wanted to go," James says, "but they didn't want him. They didn't believe in him. No one did."
They do now.
After sitting out last season following his transfer from Texas Tech, Mayfield beat out two-year starter Trevor Knight in August and will start under center for the second straight week when No. 19 Oklahoma plays 23rd-ranked Tennessee on Saturday in Knoxville.
This marks the second time in three seasons Mayfield has earned a starting quarterback job after joining a power conference team as a walk-on. At Texas Tech in 2013, he became the first true freshman walk-on in NCAA history to start a season opener.
"I'm sure I've surprised some people," said Mayfield, who threw for 388 yards in last week's win over Akron. "But that's why I've made it to where I am today. When people doubt me, I want to prove them wrong."
He's had plenty of opportunities.
Despite going 25-2 and winning a state title as a starter at Lake Travis High School—one of the most dominant prep programs in the country—Mayfield's Division I scholarship offers were mostly limited to lower-level, non-BCS schools.
Mayfield opted to walk on at Texas Tech, where he went 5-2 as a starter before quitting the team in December after he was told he wouldn't be put on scholarship the following semester.
When Mayfield announced his intentions to enroll at Oklahoma—where Knight had just led the Sooners to an upset of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl—people questioned his sanity.
"Our friends said he was crazy," said Matt Mayfield, Baker's older brother, "and people who weren't our friends said he was stupid."
More than a year later, the only people who look foolish are the coaches who passed on Mayfield in the first place.
"Some kids believe it when people tell them they aren't good enough," Riley said. "Baker uses it as fuel. He hung in there and believed in himself and proved a lot of people missed on him.
"It's really a great story."
The text came to Matt Mayfield in the summer of 2013, just a few weeks before his brother's debut as a Division I football player.
"Where are you going to be on Aug. 30?" Baker Mayfield wrote.
Matt replied that he planned to attend Texas Tech's season opener against SMU in Dallas.
"Well then," Baker replied, "I guess you'll get to watch me start at quarterback for the Red Raiders."
Elated as he was with the news, Matt was hardly surprised Baker had ascended to the top of the depth chart just three months after arriving in Lubbock as a walk-on.
"I had seen the quarterbacks they had there and I knew he could beat them out," says Matt, 25. "Baker knew it, too. It's the self-confidence he's always had."
It didn't take James and Gina Mayfield long to realize sports would be a dominant presence in their youngest son's life.
Baker was four when he entered his parents' bedroom at 6 a.m. one morning to ask if he could watch SportsCenter instead of his Saturday cartoons.
As a first-grader, Baker organized backyard football and baseball games featuring his and his brother's school friends, which included current NFL quarterback Andrew Luck. Once he'd made lineup cards and drawn up plays, Baker accompanied Gina as she drove through the neighborhood to pick the kids lucky enough to score an invite.
Even though he was smaller than most of his classmates, Baker's height was rarely a deterrent in grade school. So strong was his arm that he often overthrew receivers in youth football. As a pitcher, Baker's fastball frightened hitters—and not just because of its speed. Mayfield was eight when he plunked four straight batters in a Little League game.
"Kids were crying and didn't want to bat, and parents were yelling from the stands," James says. "I had to walk over to the coach and say, 'Take my son out of the game.'
"His size never matched up to his arm strength."
At least not until high school.
Baker stood just 5'2" as a freshman but had grown to 5'10" by his junior year at Lake Travis, which boasts a history of producing standout signal-callers. Todd Reesing (Kansas), Garrett Gilbert (Texas/SMU) and Michael Brewer (Texas Tech/Virginia Tech) all earned Division I scholarships in the years before Mayfield's arrival.
Mayfield entered the 2011 season No. 2 on the depth chart, but a shoulder injury to starter Colin Lagasse on the first series of the season opener forced him into duty. Mayfield responded by throwing for 278 yards and rushing for 106 more in a 35-7 victory over rival Austin Westlake.
The following week, coaches moved Lagasse to a new position, and Mayfield led his team to a 16-0 record and a Class 4A state championship. Lake Travis went 9-2 the next season, and Mayfield finished his career with 67 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions.
Despite his success, Mayfield received barely a sniff from college coaches during the recruiting process. Assistants at Oklahoma—the school he longed to attend—wouldn't call him back, and Texas coach Mack Brown told his dad that Baker "wasn't a good fit" for the Longhorns.
The most frustrating situation involved TCU. Mayfield—who had grown to 6'1" as a senior—says the Horned Frogs invited him to their satellite camps, where he developed a rapport with many of the receivers on the current roster. As Signing Day approached, Mayfield says he was led to believe he'd be offered a scholarship, but at the last minute the program changed its mind. James Mayfield says offensive coordinator Rusty Burns told him Baker's hands were too small.
"He really thought he was going to TCU," Matt Mayfield says. "The coaches there encouraged him, and then they hung him out to dry."
Signing Day came and went. Mayfield's only Division I offers were from Rice, Florida Atlantic, Washington State and New Mexico. Mayfield says he was "angry" about the situation and couldn't understand why he was being ignored. His dad says Baker was distracted during his senior season of baseball and that he often lashed out at his parents at home.
"It was a dismal time for our family, a horrible challenge," James says. "It just kills you to watch your son go through something like that. I had all these coaching contacts, but no one was stepping up in terms of interest level."
Eventually, James told Baker his best option would be to join a Big 12 team as a walk-on.
"He was insulted," James says. "He thought he was better than that."
A few months later, Mayfield proved it.
Michael Brewer, the quarterback who preceded him at Lake Travis, phoned Mayfield in the spring and convinced him to join Brewer at Texas Tech. New head coach Kliff Kingsbury had just been hired from Texas A&M, where he'd tutored Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, and the 34-year-old coach planned to employ the same type of wide-open attack Mayfield ran at Lake Travis.
The first few months couldn't have gone any better for Mayfield, who won the starting job after Brewer went down with a back injury in early August. Just four months removed from his 18th birthday, Mayfield threw for 413 yards and accounted for five touchdowns in the season opener against SMU. After the game, Kingsbury compared Mayfield to Manziel.
"Very similar in their mentality," the coach told reporters. "Johnny's a phenom athletically, so it's tough to compare. But as far as their fearlessness, attacking and not getting flustered, I saw the same look in Baker's eyes."
Mayfield won his first five games as a starter, but things began to sour after he suffered a hairline fracture just below his knee during an Oct. 5 victory at Kansas. Team doctors instructed Mayfield not to play the following two weeks, a situation James Mayfield says infuriated Kingsbury.
"Kliff wouldn't talk to him for two weeks," James says. "He didn't think Baker was hurt badly enough not to play. It was dumb, cheap psychology."
Mayfield says he regained his health a few weeks after his injury, but it wasn't until Nov. 16 that he regained his starting position. The Red Raiders finished 7-5 and qualified for the Holiday Bowl. As the team prepared to take on Arizona State, Kingsbury told Mayfield, Brewer and freshman Davis Webb that how they practiced in December would determine the order of the bowl game depth chart.
Believing he'd earned the right to start, Mayfield was peeved. The Big 12's Freshman Offensive Player of the Year reached his breaking point a week later when Kingsbury informed him he wouldn't be awarded a scholarship for the spring semester. Mayfield went home called his father.
"Dad," he said, "I don't want to be here anymore."
A few days later, Mayfield packed up his belongings and drove to Austin.
"People in Lubbock were upset," Mayfield says, "but they don't understand all the things that go on inside that program. The bottom line is that they weren't going to offer me a scholarship. They told me that.
"I basically felt like, 'If you're not going to invest in me, I'm going to go to a place where somebody will.'"
Baker Mayfield hadn't been granted a release from Texas Tech when his father called Oklahoma's athletic department about a possible transfer in December of 2013.
After placing him on hold for 15 minutes, a compliance officer told James that, if his son wanted to try out for the football team, he needed to enroll for the spring semester and wait until his paperwork had cleared before beginning practice.
Sensing the conversation had ended, James started to hang up.
"Oh, Mr. Mayfield...one more thing," the compliance officer said. "There are people here who want me to tell you that they really want Baker at Oklahoma."
James relayed that comment to his son. It was something Baker needed to hear. Still harboring a bit of mental baggage from the Sooners' lack of interest a few years earlier, Mayfield wasn't sure if walking on at Oklahoma was the best idea.
After a few weeks, though, the hard feelings started to dwindle—partly because of the positive response his father received during the phone call, but more so because he saw an opportunity to contribute. As much as he admired and respected Knight for his performance against Alabama, Mayfield felt he could compete for a starting job.
Stoops had received word Mayfield was interested in transferring, but he didn't know he'd actually gone through with it until Mayfield introduced himself after a team dinner nearly a month into the semester.
"Maybe the strangest thing that's ever happened to me in my coaching career," Stoops said at Oklahoma's media day last month. "If I had said 'no' he might be in a fraternity over here playing yard ball."
Mayfield's initial hope was to gain immediate eligibility ability and compete in 2014. But Kingsbury and Texas Tech blocked his transfer by refusing to sign his release, meaning Mayfield was unable to play or receive financial aid for a year.
Arguing that he should be considered a non-recruited athlete and thus eligible for a one-time transfer exemption, Mayfield hired an attorney to attempt to get the ruling reversed, but his appeal was denied. Mayfield's transfer also cost him a year of eligibility, although his family is considering a legal fight to get it back.
Whatever happens, the messy situation only enhanced their dislike for Kingsbury.
"Kliff is a punk," James Mayfield says. "He's a strange bird. He got his feelings hurt, so he wouldn't release Baker. It was classless. It will catch up to him eventually."
Via a school spokesman, Kingsbury declined to comment for this article.
Frustrating as it was to miss the 2014 season, Mayfield couldn't have felt more at home at the school he grew up rooting for.
While most of his classmates in Austin wore Texas Longhorns gear to school each week, Mayfield loved the bold feeling he got from walking through the halls in his Oklahoma jersey. He and his family tailgated in the same spot before almost every Sooners home game, and it wasn't uncommon for James to use his coaching connections to score Mayfield and his brother passes that gained them field access an hour before kickoff.
The same warmth Mayfield felt in the early 2000s was present after he enrolled.
Strangers approached him on campus and thanked him for "coming over from the dark side." He joined his dormitory's intramural softball team, often changing into his cleats after spring football practice before rushing to the diamond.
At a charity event few days before Oklahoma took on Clemson in the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl, Mayfield engaged in a dance-off with Tigers players that went viral on YouTube. In the video, Mayfield—who as a child spent hours mimicking Michael Jackson's moves in front of a full-length mirror—clearly won the admiration of his new teammates by doing a near-perfect version of "The Whip."
As fun as it makes him to be around, Mayfield's outgoing personality also pays dividends on the football field.
"It helps me relate to a lot of people," Mayfield says. "Whether it gets a conversation going or makes people laugh and smile, it's important to get to know the people you're playing with. It makes you fight harder for one another."
Mayfield's demeanor is completely different than that of former Sooners quarterbacks such as Sam Bradford, Jason White and Landry Jones, who were more stoic. It's no stretch to say Mayfield is the most charismatic signal-caller Stoops has coached in his 17 years at Oklahoma.
"Some guys get on that platform and act how they think they're supposed to act," Matt Mayfield says. "But Baker is just being himself. He's always been that way. Guys gravitate toward that realness."
Mayfield's most impressive act since arriving in Norman may have occurred last spring, when members of the Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity were secretly filmed chanting racist remarks on a party bus. The situation generated national headlines and caused tension and angst amongst OU students—especially after linebacker Eric Striker went on a profanity-laced tirade about racism on campus and posted it on social media.
The following day, Baker received a call from his father, who said he was shocked and saddened by Striker's rant. He asked his son about Striker's character.
"I promise you," Baker said, "he's not like that."
A few weeks later, Baker showed up at his family's home in Austin with Striker in tow. They stayed the entire weekend.
"He couldn't have been a nicer kid," James Mayfield says. "I was totally wrong about him. I almost wondered if Baker brought him home to prove a point. When he was leaving, he looked at me like, 'I told you he wasn't like that.'"
Such tales illustrate why Mayfield has been quick to become a leader in the Sooners locker room. And his play on the field? That speaks for itself.
The situation couldn't be more gratifying for Mayfield and his family. Almost every week—whether it comes via a fan on the Internet, a comment in an article or a call with an Oklahoma staffer—someone is paying Baker Mayfield a compliment.
One such instance occurred last winter, when James Mayfield crossed paths with Bobby Jack Wright at the Austin airport. Wright is the Oklahoma assistant who stopped returning Mayfield's phone calls back in 2011.
"Your son is the man!" Wright said.
James could've made a snarky remark, but instead he just smiled.
"Thanks," he said.
As the Sooners team bus snaked toward Memorial Stadium before last week's season opener against Akron, Mayfield became a bit sentimental.
He looked out the window and saw the patch of grass where he and his family used to tailgate. He spotted children in Oklahoma jerseys playing catch with the football while fans cooked burgers, wings and brats.
"I just kept thinking, ‘That used to be me,'" Mayfield says. "I kind of went off into my own little world and soaked it all in. It's been a tough ride to get here, but what's happening now makes it all worth it."
Pleased as he was with his performance against Akron, Mayfield knows much bigger moments are ahead.
Saturday's game at Tennessee will be one of the marquee matchups of the college football weekend. The Red River rivalry game against Texas is slated for Oct. 10 at the Cotton Bowl, and it goes without saying that Mayfield will be extra-hyped for Oklahoma's Oct. 24 showdown with Kingsbury and Texas Tech on Oct. 24 in Norman.
"That's an important day," Matt Mayfield says. "Not just for Baker, but for our entire family."
Nothing, though, motivates Mayfield more than helping Oklahoma return to national prominence. The Sooners finished 8-5 last season and haven't won a Big 12 title since 2012. Most pundits picked them to finish third, behind Baylor and TCU, in this year's conference race.
"Last year was a sickening feeling—and I didn't even play," Mayfield says. "That's not how things are supposed to go around here. We expect Big 12 championships and national championships, but right now people are doubting us.
"They've forgotten about us."
In other words, it's the perfect situation for Mayfield, who has learned all about the feeling that comes from being slighted.
And, more importantly, how to embrace it.
"When people tell Baker he can't do something, it usually works out pretty well," James says. "Everything has come full circle. This is where he was meant to be all along.
"This is his dream."
Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.