Baker Mayfield isn't afraid of the hype

Baker was overcome with emotion when Browns got OBJ (3:09)

Baker Mayfield describes what it was like to win his first game with the Browns and what the moment was like when he heard Odell Beckham Jr. was coming to Cleveland. (3:09)

A DOZEN OR so kids line up to catch a pass from Baker Mayfield, and one of them is so gut-wrenchingly adorable, I briefly wonder if he's a plant. It's an absurd thought, but the whole scenario carries a whiff of predetermined charm. The visual of Mayfield playing football with hundreds of children at his camp in Norman, Oklahoma, is a publicist's dream, and this tiny blond, bespectacled child is straight out of central casting. He's wearing a Baker-esque headband (every camper received one) and knee socks with the quarterback's face on them. When he walks up to Mayfield, his sneakers sink into the muddy field, and everyone watching goes Ooh.

Mayfield hunches over a little -- standing just over 6 feet tall in shorts and Nikes, he looks more like a regular dad playing catch with his kids than an NFL quarterback -- and gingerly places a hand on the boy's shoulder. "I don't know where you got those socks," Mayfield says, winking. "But I love them."

The kid is real, of course. I can see his parents in the crowd; even though the sun boils us like bugs underneath a magnifying glass, they're the ones desperately trying to capture every second of this encounter. Craig and Malia Harvey drove 12 hours from their small hometown in Colorado to attend Mayfield's camp. Malia tells me that their 5-year-old, Gavin, wore his Mayfield socks over a suit to his kindergarten graduation ceremony; he's studied every detail of the quarterback's journey, including his now-iconic celebrations. "He imitates them," Craig explains.

"When he plays soccer, he lifts up his shirt and celebrates," Malia says.

"He's running around, swinging the arm and everything," Craig says.

There was a time not long ago, before Mayfield led the Browns to their first win in nearly two seasons, before Cleveland heralded him as the franchise's long-awaited savior, before Mayfield beefed with his former head coach (more on that later), when such revelry provoked angst among the self-appointed guardians of college football's moral code. On two occasions -- one time when Mayfield grabbed his crotch in the general direction of the Kansas sideline, another when he planted an Oklahoma flag on Ohio State's field after an upset victory, equal parts Buzz Aldrin and Buzz McCallister -- the young quarterback was shamed into delivering mea culpas, apologizing to fans for stunting too hard.

And yet Gavin's parents shrug at the mention of those public stumbles. Sure, they don't want their son doing everything Mayfield's done, but they're happy that a tiny kid like Gavin has a (relatively) tiny quarterback to admire, an overlooked athlete, now one of the most famous walk-ons in college football history, who proved his doubters wrong. His height, his flaws, his story -- it all makes Mayfield seem more real to them, like he's a human playing a position normally reserved for superheroes. "He is who he is, and he doesn't apologize for it," Malia says.

As I watch the quarterback gently toss a ball to Gavin, I think about how quickly he's won over not only these people but millions more like them, a region of skeptics who wandered in the quarterback wilderness for decades, only to find themselves converted into believers by an undersized kid from Texas with immeasurable faith in himself. Then I remember something Mayfield told me a few weeks ago, when I met him for the first time. "You get this term" -- Mayfield had paused, making air quotations with his fingers -- "'franchise QB.' That's like being a politician." He spat out the phrase in a way that suggested he didn't particularly care for it, even though it's generally used to describe the league's most valuable players, the traditional role models that teams are built around.

"You don't have to do that," he said.

THE CLEVELAND BROWNS are favored to win their division. Read that sentence again and let it wash over you; marvel at the implausibility of those words being printed in order, passing untouched through a fact-checker's hands. The Cleveland Browns. Are Favored. To Win. Their Division. The organization that's doubled as a punch line for the better part of the NFL's modern era is now the buzziest team in football, a turnaround that began in earnest last winter when Cleveland won five of its final seven games and Mayfield threw his 27th touchdown, a rookie record. Now everyone -- fans, reporters, marketers, bettors -- wants a piece of the Browns. They want Myles Garrett, the quirky sack artist with sizzling potential; they want Odell Beckham Jr., the wildly talented wide receiver who was traded from the Giants earlier this year.

But most of all, they want Mayfield.

And here he is: strolling into the Browns' practice facility in Berea, Ohio, on a chilly April afternoon, dressed unassumingly in gray sweats, his bushy offseason beard shaking like a turkey's wattle when he laughs (he laughs a lot). The prince who was promised. Whenever Mayfield enters a space, he has a way of connecting with everyone in his path that reminds me of a comment coach Hue Jackson made last spring, comparing Mayfield to the Pied Piper. (The analogy, intended to illustrate the quarterback's rare charisma, struck most people as deeply weird.) Walking past Browns staffers, the quarterback doles out daps and bro nods, stopping to pet Moose, the chocolate Lab who lives in the Browns' office. When someone presents Mayfield with a box of cookies, he pats his belly and sighs. "You know I'm trying to stay away from sweets!" he says.

I ask him if it feels weird, starting the offseason with so much hype. "For them," he says, flicking his wrist toward the door. "Not for me." He cocks an eyebrow and grins. "For everybody else around here, it's been pretty terrible to be part of this team for a while." Then he laughs. Not unkindly but in a way that suggests he thinks everyone in Cleveland is in on the joke.

Until the day of the draft, Mayfield wasn't sure the Browns would take him with the first overall pick. (For a while, he was convinced New England would trade up for him at No. 2.) He found the challenge of joining a long-struggling team -- Cleveland's last playoff appearance was in 2002 -- exhilarating. "I wanted to come here and play and be the one to change it right away," he explains, snapping his fingers. The Browns had other plans. In March, before Mayfield was picked, the team announced that any quarterback drafted would sit and study behind veteran Tyrod Taylor, a developmental road map with support across the organization.

"I wasn't happy about it, but I understood it," Mayfield says. He appreciated that the team was upfront about the plan -- honesty means a great deal to him -- and he saw the value in learning on the sidelines, especially after sitting out a year at Oklahoma. He also respects Taylor, whom he describes as thoughtful and kind, and he didn't want to step on his toes. "There's no reason to be an ass," he says. Still, it was a little infuriating. As a rookie, he was told to be deferential and quiet, qualities that, unsurprisingly, do not come naturally to a player who once trolled the Texas Longhorns after a Cotton Bowl win by galloping off the field on an imaginary horse.

"Me being me, I wanna be that guy in the locker room, I wanna be myself. But at the same time, I had heard so many different things from different guys and read things ... " Mayfield sighs. "I wanted to go through the process and learn as much as I could so when the moment arose -- then it would be my time. Then I could be that person and let it all go."

That moment arrived sooner than expected. Mayfield had been looking forward to the Jets game in Week 3 as soon as the Browns' schedule was released, praying that he'd have the opportunity to go head-to-head with rookie Sam Darnold, a quarterback he'd been compared to for years. "I woke up that morning" -- he pauses and grins, a little sheepishly --"not feeling dangerous. But I woke up and said: 'It's game day.' I had a different type of juice that morning. It was weird."

After struggling to move the ball for much of the first half, Taylor exited the game with a concussion, and Mayfield came in with just over a minute left. He threw his first pass to receiver Jarvis Landry, threading the ball between two defenders for a first down. The home fans lost their minds. "It was like a weight lifted off their shoulders," Mayfield says, before imitating an imaginary fan and whispering: "Thank you." He shakes his head. "You could tell the energy was in the air. You could feel it: This might be the first win. And when it finally happened, it was like, 'Well, what do we do now?'"

That night, the city celebrated like the Browns had just won the Super Bowl. The merriment was short-lived; the team went on to lose five of its next six games, with Mayfield struggling to stay upright (he took 21 sacks). During that period, reports surfaced that Jackson, who had compiled a 1-31 record over his first two seasons as head coach, was tangling with offensive coordinator Todd Haley behind closed doors, a feud that had been foreshadowed in the preseason by a couple of tense scenes on HBO's "Hard Knocks." Mayfield's eyes widen when talking about the Shakespearean drama that unfolded in Berea last fall. "People have no idea," he says. "Any time you combine the personalities we had -- at offensive coordinator, at defensive coordinator and head coach -- heads are gonna clash. That's just a known thing."

As tensions mounted, Mayfield tried to keep his head down. "I had never gone through a rookie season before, but I'm pretty sure that's not exactly how it's supposed to go," he says, a wry look crossing his face. Then, the morning after the Browns lost their third straight game, falling 33-18 to the Steelers at the end of October, all hell broke loose. Cleveland fired not only Jackson but Haley too; Gregg Williams, the notoriously polarizing defensive coordinator -- and the source of many meme-able moments on "Hard Knocks," mostly because of his profanity -- was elevated to interim head coach.

Two weeks later, the Bengals announced they were bringing on Jackson, a former offensive coordinator in Cincinnati under Marvin Lewis, to coach the team's defense as a special assistant. The coach's supporters pointed out that he had a right to find work and that Cincinnati was a soft landing spot. But the news landed with a thud in Cleveland. Jackson, an offensive specialist, was intimately familiar with the inner workings of the Browns' game plan -- and now he was helping the Bengals' defense, which they had to face two times that season. Guard Joel Bitonio said their former coach had gone "back to the enemy." When Cleveland faced the Bengals for the first time that November, crushing them 35-20, safety Damarious Randall picked off an Andy Dalton pass and handed the ball to Jackson on the sideline.

After the game, cameras caught an awkward interaction between the coach and Mayfield, who seemed to dodge a hug before shaking Jackson's hand stiffly. Asked about it later, Mayfield called Jackson out for going to a division rival. The next day, ESPN analyst Damien Woody criticized Mayfield's comments, noting that Mayfield had left Texas Tech for Oklahoma. The quarterback responded in the comments on an Instagram video of Woody's remarks: I didn't lose 30+ games be fake and then do that. ... I wasn't gonna have a scholarship. Good try though buddy.

Would a so-called franchise quarterback clap back on social media? Probably not. But Mayfield doesn't regret it. "I said what I meant," he says. "Don't stand up in front of us the week before and try to tell us you're doing everything for us, then go take a job with a team we play twice a year. It was one of those honesty and respect things." The quarterback says he didn't mind the blowback, though it did bother him when people said he was disregarding Jackson's need to earn a living, given that his former coach was still getting paid by the Browns. I ask him if he relished beating the Bengals last season. "Absolutely," he says. "I'm not gonna lie to you and say that the first time I played Hue did not feel good. It's human nature to want to get revenge."

Today, Jackson, who is no longer working for Cincinnati, says he doesn't regret taking the Bengals job. "I wanted to coach and help a friend and organization I respect," he says. He tells me he hasn't spoken with Mayfield since the season ended but doesn't harbor any ill will toward his former charge. "Baker's gonna be Baker," he says. "He was disappointed that I left and was with a team in the division. ... That was his feeling and I have to respect it."

Jackson adds that he stands by his Pied Piper analogy, noting that Mayfield "has a way of drawing people to him" with his charisma that astonished him, even when the coach found himself on the outside looking in. "Opponents? He doesn't like you. People on the fence? He doesn't want to be around them," Jackson says. "That's the way he's made. ... You're either all-in with him or you're not."

His description sounds severe, but it isn't meant as criticism. At least not completely. "It serves the purpose you need," Jackson says, "if it leads to wins."

MAYFIELD'S FRIENDS CALL him "The 12-Year-Old," because, well, he kind of looks like he's 12 (the quarterback turned 24 in April). When he smiles, you can see a tiny gap between his two front teeth; it's easy to imagine him as a mischievous little kid, starting food fights and pulling pigtails. But his mother, Gina, says that couldn't be further from the truth. "He was a rules follower," she tells me over the phone, cracking up a little. As a boy, she says, Baker loathed getting in trouble. Gina recounts one incident, now infamous in the Mayfield family, when she asked her 9-year-old son to go outside and roll up the windows of the family's parked Chevy Tahoe and he accidentally drove it across the street and into a tree belonging to the town's mayor. "He was hysterically upset and crying," she says. "I didn't think I was gonna get him to come out of the house for two days."

As a child growing up just outside Austin, Texas, Mayfield says he was a teacher's pet, mostly because he wanted to please others. (One of his greatest accomplishments in elementary school, he adds, was earning the right to nap behind his kindergarten teacher's desk.) He was shy and deeply afraid of making mistakes. "I hated speaking in front of people," he says. Mayfield didn't really find his voice until the end of high school, when he was navigating the college recruiting process. After just four FBS schools (Florida Atlantic, Rice, New Mexico and Washington State) offered him scholarships, the young quarterback felt confused and, at times, misled. "I realized I'm gonna have to speak my mind if I want to know what's really gonna happen here," he says.

From there, he embarked on one of the more remarkable careers in college football history -- and documented every instance of disrespect he encountered along the way. After Mayfield walked on at Texas Tech and became the starter, his relationship with head coach Kliff Kingsbury soured; he told the media that Kingsbury, now the coach of the Arizona Cardinals, had frozen him out (the two have since buried the hatchet, he says). He took screenshots of comments from reporters who questioned his bona fides. But when asked if he has come across any insults lately, he demurs. "I haven't done that in a while," he says. "There comes a time when I'm gonna have to block that out. ... You've got to find your own motivation."

He sees the skepticism on my face and giggles. "When I want to stir the pot, I'll click to see what [Colin] Cowherd's said lately," he says. In April, after the Fox Sports radio host said his sources had told him that Beckham was unhappy about being traded to the Browns, Mayfield snapped at him on Twitter: "Come to Cleveland and ask O if he actually likes it." In April, he lashed out again when Cowherd listed some of Beckham's off-the-field incidents, calling the host a "clown." (Mayfield has an "incident" of his own on his record -- in college, he pleaded guilty to public intoxication and disorderly conduct.)

When I ask Mayfield about the back-and-forth, he says it bothers him when people perpetuate misinformation about the wide receiver. "He's here to work, and he wants to be surrounded by people who love him and support him and allow him to be himself," he says. "He's here to play in front of fans who actually care, who will actually show up to every game and pack the stadium and love him for who he is." (Regrettably, the Browns do not play the Giants this year.)

Mayfield's approach to leadership has always been driven by tribalism. "He's got his guys and he's got their back and if you're not with them ... you're against him," explains Browns backup Garrett Gilbert, a Lake Travis native who's known Mayfield since elementary school. "There's no in-between. It's very black-and-white."

This binary framework doesn't always translate in a business in which the kinship of a shared jersey matters less to owners than the amount of dead money on a man's contract. In June, Mayfield was asked about one of his teammates, Duke Johnson, a veteran running back who had been phased out of the offense and was asking for a trade. The quarterback's seemingly unsympathetic response -- "You're either on this train or you're not," he told reporters -- rubbed some players the wrong way.

It was a rare misstep for an athlete who, by all accounts, possesses the seductive charisma of a cult leader, galvanizing his teammates by drawing battle lines at every possible turn. Mayfield's coach at Oklahoma, Lincoln Riley, says he was captivated when he watched the walk-on practicing with his college teammates before his first season, screaming encouragements and pushing them to work harder before he had even played a snap. Mayfield, he says, is unlike any player he's been around. "He can play his best when he's talking trash and he's mad and has that edge," he says. "Most quarterbacks are at their worst -- he's at his best."

Ahead of the 2018 draft, Riley's full-throated endorsement of his quarterback helped counter the whispers that the Heisman winner was a clone of Johnny Manziel, a comparison that frustrated Mayfield, who calls it lazy. He imitates an anonymous scout, lowering his voice: "On the field, they have a similar game. But off the field ...they're really the same person."

And yet, when I ask him if he's still worried about being painted incorrectly, he purses his lips. "I feel like athletes use the 'I'm misunderstood' thing too much," he says. "If you're worried about being understood, you're worried about the wrong things."

A MONTH AFTER meeting Mayfield, I return to Cleveland, where he's being photographed for this story. As he changes into his uniform, his fiancée, Emily Wilkinson, sits on a small stage in a warehouse-like loft space near the set, heels dangling over the edge. A couple from Indiana is stocking the bar and setting up tables; they're getting married here this weekend. As Wilkinson, whose own wedding to Mayfield would take place in July, chats with them about their decor, the quarterback creeps behind them and sticks his tongue out at her.

"Is she talking s---?" he asks.

Wilkinson rolls her eyes and shakes her head, her long blond braid flopping over her shoulder. "We're not talking about you," she says, before turning to the bride. "Guard the vodka."

The quarterback and his fiancée, who is from Nebraska, were introduced in 2017 by a mutual friend. At the time, Wilkinson was living in Los Angeles. She says she was wary of dating a "punk football player" and ignored Mayfield's advances for months: He repeatedly followed and unfollowed her on Instagram, trying to attract her attention. Finally, in late December, they exchanged messages. He begged her to meet him before the Rose Bowl, his final college football game. She reluctantly agreed to grab lunch.

"I was assuming he'd be the typical playboy athlete," says Wilkinson, who is four years older than Mayfield. Because the Rose Bowl was the next day, she thought they'd spend most of their date talking about the game. But it barely came up. Instead, she says, Mayfield spent their entire first date peppering her with questions about herself, her family, her plans for the future. The next day, after Oklahoma lost, ending its season, the quarterback texted Wilkinson and told her he was staying in LA. Three days later, he moved in with her and her brothers. Six months later, Emily and Baker were engaged.

As Mayfield walks back from the shoot, he pauses to sign the couple's wedding guest book. "He's such a softy," says Wilkinson, watching from the stage. "He's a mama's boy." Every year, the quarterback sends a packet of birthday cards to Gina, picking out ones with the corniest jokes. He inherited his love of dancing from his mother; when he was small, she would put on Michael Jackson CDs and twirl him around the living room.

Mayfield might not care about being misunderstood, but many of the people in his orbit seem determined to set the record straight on the divide between his public and private personas. "My perception was a lot like everybody's -- that he was kind of an outlandish, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kinda guy," says Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens, who was coaching the team's running backs at the start of last season. "What I found was somebody totally different." As Kitchens got to know the rookie quarterback, he identified parallels in their journeys. "At the core of everything is the fact that he's always been told no: You can't do this. We're looking for someone else. You're not this," he says. "I think we have that in common."

Before Kitchens was named offensive coordinator last October, he had been an offensive assistant in the NFL for 12 seasons. But he had never been asked to interview for a coordinator position. "I don't sound like you, or most coaches, so the perception of me is different," he tells me in a thick Alabama drawl. "You've got a bunch of gurus out there that tell you what a QB should look like and what a head coach should look like," says Kitchens, who bears a stronger resemblance to someone's cornhole-loving uncle than, say, Kyle Shanahan or Sean McVay. "We don't look like anybody's version of those people."

The day that Kitchens took over the offense, he swore to his players that if they put their trust in him, he wouldn't let them down. "He was emotional. That was life-changing for him," Mayfield says. Over the next two months, coach and quarterback worked hand in hand to fix an offense that had stalled. Kitchens zeroed in on the plays Mayfield was comfortable with, including concepts from college. "Some of the play-action and zone-read stuff, the RPO, how we ran some of our empty packages when I was at Oklahoma, we'd talk about it and get on the same page," Mayfield says.

After Kitchens took over playcalling, the Browns' offense exploded. During the first half of the season, Mayfield completed 58% of his passes with a QBR of just 36; over the last eight weeks, his completion percentage rose to 68% and his QBR nearly doubled. Under the new regime, he landed near the top of the league in most passing categories. As soon as the season ended, Cleveland announced that it was promoting Kitchens, the coach who hadn't even been considered for a coordinator job, to the top spot. Mayfield was elated. "You could tell he just wanted the best for his players," he says.

Coming off the Browns' strong finish last season, the hype around the team was simmering. Then the Beckham news broke -- and expectations erupted. While rumors about a trade had been floating around the NFL for weeks, Mayfield said it was confirmed to him just a few minutes before everyone else, when Kitchens sent him a simple text: "We just got better."

The quarterback smiles at the memory, almost wistfully. "I was overcome with emotion," he says.

Kitchens was right, of course: The Browns did get better. A lot better. So much better that, like Mayfield himself, they can no longer call themselves underdogs, harvesting motivation from perceived slights. After years of being shunted to the outer fringes of the NFL's zeitgeist, the team is fully in the spotlight, with four prime-time games on its schedule after playing at night just three times in the prior three seasons combined. Mayfield is fully aware of the ear-splitting buzz, but he insists it doesn't worry him. "Here's the thing," he says, smirking a little. "They're gonna hype you up. But as soon as you lose a couple of games, they'll throw you in the trash."

If that happens -- if the Browns lose, and the quarterback struggles, and the bubbling optimism in Cleveland boils over like an unwatched pot -- how will Mayfield respond? It's easy to reject the status quo in the NFL when you're winning, but adversity invites second-guessing and hate. It's why so many "franchise quarterbacks" are so bland in public. Sure, some of them are just boring people, but others say little because their silence affords them protection, shielding them from the scrutiny that inevitably follows self-expression.

Mayfield knows all of this but maintains that he doesn't care. He isn't afraid of scrutiny -- god knows he's used to it -- and he doesn't want a shield. "I'm gonna be myself and believe in that," he says. "And if you don't like it, that's OK."

Styling by Courtney Mays; grooming by Connie Kellers; production by Allison Cole; wardrobe: cover image: jacket by The Kooples; bomber jacket and shorts by Nike; T-shirt by Uniqlo; shoes by Nike; Baker with dogs in studio: track suit by Daniel Patrick; T-shirt by ATM; shoes by Nike; bracelets by David Yurman & Miansai; Baker with kids: sweatshirt by Homage; pants by Perry Ellis; shoes by Nike.