Every day, Baker Mayfield kept waiting for that scholarship to come. That scholarship he really wanted. That scholarship that never arrived.
In just two games, Texas Tech’s true freshman walk-on quarterback has become one of the unlikeliest of stories in college football.
But it wasn’t the Red Raiders he always dreamed of playing for. It was the team the Red Raiders are playing against Thursday night.
“TCU was the only school he really had interest in,” said Shaun Nixon, Mayfield’s running back at Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas. “That was the school he really wanted to go to.”
On Thursday, when Tech faces TCU in a Big 12 clash that could have conference title implications down the line, Mayfield will have the chance to show the Horned Frogs what they missed out on, live and in person.
“He’s going to have a chip on his shoulder because TCU didn’t want him,” said Nixon, an ESPN 300 prospect in the Class of 2014 who is committed to Texas A&M.
“He’s going to be ready for this one.”
How Mayfield ended up at Tech as a walk-on and not somewhere like TCU as a scholarship player is something his high school teammates and coaches are still trying to figure out. Even the Tech coaches aren’t quite sure. Even if they are thankful.
“It’s a great question,” said Red Raiders receivers coach Sonny Cumbie. “I think a lot of people who were close to pulling the trigger are probably kicking themselves now.”
Cumbie knows firsthand what it feels like to fall through the recruiting cracks. After running the wing-T for a small school just west of Abilene, Texas, Cumbie graduated high school with no FBS offers.
“It was before the era of summer camps,” he said. “I was completely under the radar.”
Despite being under the radar, Cumbie still wanted to play for an FBS program. So he reached out to Texas Tech, which had just hired Mike Leach, to see whether the Red Raiders might have any interest. Not only did Leach have interest, he invited Cumbie to visit Lubbock on a Sunday and personally gave him a tour of the campus.
“Especially now looking back on it,” Cumbie said, “when the head coach in the middle of the afternoon meets a walk-on quarterback in the parking lot -- it goes a long way.”
Due in large part to Leach’s hospitality, Cumbie decided to turn down his Division II offers and walk on at Tech, ultimately earning a scholarship before winning the starting job four years later.
Like Cumbie, Mayfield won the starting job at Tech after walking on. But it took Mayfield just a summer.
“That’s where the story starts taking a different path,” said Cumbie, who led the nation in passing in 2004. “He’s having a whole lot more success early on than I did.”
Is he ever.
Through two games, Mayfield is completing 71 percent of his passes and has thrown seven touchdowns with no interceptions, leading the Red Raiders to routs in their first two games.
“He’s a special type of talent,” Cumbie said. “He’s got the ‘wow’ factor to him.”
Mayfield had the wow factor to him in high school, too. He quarterbacked Lake Travis to a state championship and in two years as the starter threw 67 touchdowns with just eight interceptions. Yet even though Lake Travis had produced FBS quarterbacks before him like Todd Reesing (Kansas), Garrett Gilbert (SMU) and Michael Brewer (Texas Tech), Mayfield was lightly recruited. He had offers from New Mexico, Washington State and Florida Atlantic. But as Mayfield waited for a bigger offer, the rest of them dried up.
Hank Carter, his high school coach, said many of the schools that scouted Mayfield elected to go with bigger quarterbacks.
“People thought he was too short,” Carter said.
Mayfield is listed at 6-foot-2 now. But he was 5-5 as a high school freshman.
“He was a late bloomer,” Carter said. “We always made the comment, 'If Baker Mayfield ever grows, he’s going to be a freaking stud.' He’s such a gamer.”
Mayfield eventually grew, and eventually took over as quarterback at Lake Travis when the starter was hurt during the first game of Mayfield's junior season.
Nixon said he and Mayfield went to visit TCU often together, and he fully expected his quarterback to end up in Fort Worth.
“He thought he had found a home there,” said Nixon. “In the locker room, I’d ask him, ‘When you gonna commit?’ He’d say, ‘I’m still waiting on TCU. I’m still waiting on TCU.’"
Mayfield waited patiently. But less than a month before national signing day, Temple (Texas) quarterback Zach Allen decommitted from Syracuse when Orange coach Doug Marrone bolted for the NFL, and the Horned Frogs decided to take Allen over Mayfield. By that point, Washington State had moved on, too, leaving Mayfield without a home.
Texas Tech didn’t have a scholarship, either. But due to his connections to Brewer from high school, as well as new Tech assistant Eric Morris, who remembered Mayfield from his time at Washington State, Mayfield decided to follow the path Cumbie took and walk on in Lubbock.
“When he decided to walk on, we were not excited he was going to do that,” Carter said. “We didn’t think he was going to get a chance, at least for a while. But that shows how much we know. He always knew something we didn’t”
Mayfield turned heads the moment he arrived on campus over the summer. And when Brewer’s lingering back injury kept giving him problems, Mayfield found himself in a head-to-head competition with Texas Tech’s scholarship freshman quarterback, Davis Webb, for the starting job.
“It was one day after another, where [Mayfield] kept having good days,” Cumbie said. “The chains kept moving when he was in there.
“After awhile, we were like, ‘This dude is for real.’”
On Thursday night, Mayfield will attempt to prove to the school he dreamed of playing for that he’s for real, too. All while revealing what the Horned Frogs could have had.
“I’m sure he’s pretty psyched,” Carter said, “to go out there and show TCU they should have offered him a scholarship.”