Long before he emerged into an NFL franchise quarterback, Mayfield was an undersized middle-schooler, dreaming one day he might become Lake Travis High School’s next Garrett Gilbert.
“I’ve always looked up to Garrett,” said Mayfield, 24. “It’s so surreal to have him on the same team.”
After having his banner season playing in the Alliance of American Football cut short this spring when the league unexpectedly folded, Gilbert is now trying to make the 53-man roster in Cleveland as a third quarterback, alongside trusted veteran Drew Stanton.
Gilbert has impressed all during training camp, flashing the big arm that made him a five-star recruit a decade ago. In Saturday’s preseason game at Indianapolis, Gilbert got the start with Mayfield resting and delivered his finest performance yet, tossing two touchdowns to lead the Browns to a victory.
“He came in and had control of the huddle,” Cleveland coach Freddie Kitchens said. “Made some plays. … eliminated mistakes. I thought he performed really well.”
That potential value to the Browns, however, goes beyond the field. Gilbert, after all, has the ear of the face of the franchise, as well.
“Baker and I go way back, sort of grew up together,” said Gilbert, 28. “You think about team chemistry and how teams that are close and that are essentially family that they’re able to call each other out on things. Because of our past relationship, I feel like that gives me that instant credibility to be able to talk with him.”
An instant credibility derived from time. The two Austin, Texas natives go back to when Gilbert was in high school and Mayfield was in junior high. Mayfield’s best friend was Gilbert’s younger brother, Griffin, who’s a year older than Mayfield.
“Baker became part of our group, and really we started hanging out almost every single day,” recalled Griffin Gilbert, who was in Mayfield’s wedding this summer. “He’d ride along with me and my brother in his truck because really my brother at that time was the only one of us that could drive. I was in the front seat, Baker’s in the back seat. I mean it was pretty much that we were going to pick up Baker just about every single time we were going to hang out.”
The Gilbert gang, composed of a dozen or so friends, including Mayfield, spent evenings and weekends together playing pool, backyard baseball and pick-up basketball, both water and regular. Their favorite pastime, however, was “razzle,” a hybrid game of football and ultimate frisbee, where passing and catching are paramount.
“He had to toughen up to come up [with us] a little bit,” Garrett Gilbert said. “But he was always a competitor. He stuck his nose in there and he’d hop right back up.”
Garrett Gilbert, a 6-foot-4 standout athlete who would have the bluebloods of college football begging him to play for them, was the leader. Essentially, everyone’s big brother.
“Garrett was an absolute rock star around here and really across the state,” longtime Lake Travis football coach Hank Carter said. “Such a physical specimen, he was the biggest, one of the fastest, could throw it a mile.”
Mayfield, meanwhile, was the group’s trash-talking little brother, who was not only the youngest, but at around 5-foot-4, also the smallest, yet to hit his growth spurt.
“That’s really what he was, that annoying little brother to all of us,” Griffin Gilbert said of Mayfield, whose affectionate nickname among the group was “the fat 12-year-old,” a moniker that has remained to this day. “We’d always be pushing him around, but he was always clapping back with us. You would think, why would the little runt be clapping back to the oldest guy, Garrett? But he clapped back at him every single day, too. That’s his personality. He’s the fiery little dog, you’ve seen it everywhere. He’s just got that fire within him that if someone talks to him, he’s going to talk back. He’s always been good at it, and he does it in a way that’s funny a lot of the times.”
That’s one reason why Garrett Gilbert said he relished bodying up Mayfield on the basketball court. But also a reason why Gilbert came to respect him, regardless of the four-year age difference.
“He wasn’t very big, but was going to be right in the middle of things,” Gilbert said. “That stems from that confidence he had in himself. And certainly, a little bit of a chip on his shoulder — he’s definitely always had that. I think that’s a big reason why he’s where he’s at today.”
Despite their distinctly different personalities — Mayfield brash and boisterous, Gilbert subtle and subdued — the two formed a bond through playful competition. And in addition to having him as friend, Mayfield found a quarterback mentor in Gilbert, as well.
“Baker’s obviously his own person, but he definitely looked up to Garrett,” Griffin Gilbert said. “Baker saw Garrett as that role model, that person that he wanted to definitely strive to be.”
Not that their paths would be the same, though eventually they would cross, more than once.
“We’d always be pushing him around, but he was always clapping back with us. You would think, why would the little runt be clapping back to the oldest guy, Garrett? But he clapped back at him every single day, too. That’s his personality. He’s the fiery little dog, you’ve seen it everywhere.”
Griffin Gilbert on Baker Mayfield
After breaking multiple Texas high school passing records and leading Lake Travis to consecutive state championships, Garrett Gilbert signed with Texas. He showed promise as a freshman, nearly rallying the Longhorns to a come-from-behind victory over Alabama in the 2009 national championship game after a rough start replacing injured Heisman finalist Colt McCoy. Gilbert, however, struggled the following year, and Texas finished with a losing record. The ensuing season, he lost his starting job, and transferred to SMU — a move that would later pit him against Mayfield on the field.
Back at Lake Travis, Mayfield carried on the quarterback tradition, leading the Cavs to another state title. But unlike Gilbert, who boasted the prototypical size college coaches covet, Mayfield was barely recruited.
“He can freaking sling it now, but in high school he didn’t have an arm like Garrett,” Carter said. “Baker’s an incredible leader, so smart. … always a rowdy player — he developed all the things you need to be successful before his body caught up. Garrett was like a man playing with boys his senior year, just so imposing. With Baker, eventually his body would catch up. But his physical matury, especially in high school, was incremental.”
Mayfield had hopes of joining his former teammate Griffin Gilbert at TCU. But an offer from the Horned Frogs never came.
“I guess they had a couple other guys that they were looking at, and they just ended up choosing a different kid,” said Griffin Gilbert, who played fullback for the Horned Frogs before an injury derailed his career. “Baker definitely wanted to go to TCU at that time, but I’ll tell you if that would’ve happened, it’s very possible Baker’s not the person that he is today.”
With few other options, Mayfield walked on at Texas Tech, joining another former Cavs quarterback in Michael Brewer, who was the bridge between Garrett Gilbert and Mayfield at Lake Travis.
That summer, Brewer suffered a back injury, which opened the door for Mayfield to become the first true freshman walk-on to start a season opener for a Power 5 program. Mayfield’s debut, coincidentally, came against SMU and Gilbert.
“A surreal experience,” Gilbert said. “It was like watching your little brother out there playing — and we couldn’t stop him.”
Gilbert threw for 388 yards on 62 attempts. But Mayfield was the story, passing for 413 yards while totaling five touchdowns, as the Red Raiders rolled 41-23.
“That wasn’t a fond memory, because we got smoked but there was definitely a sense of pride,” Gilbert said of Mayfield, who continued to use Gilbert as a sounding board throughout his college career.
Mayfield later transferred to Oklahoma, where he won the Heisman Trophy and led the Sooners to a pair of appearances in the College Football Playoff before he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Browns.
Gilbert bounced around pro football, before catching on with the Orlando Apollos of the AAF this year. Gilbert was on his way to becoming the league’s MVP when the AAF ceased operations in April. But that brought him full circle with Mayfield in Cleveland, where he’s hoping he’ll stick.
As both a viable backup — and valuable confidant — for its franchise quarterback.
“Being able to look at him and just who he is, he is the type of guy that you want to model your game after,” Mayfield said. “You want to be the same leader that he is. We are different leaders, but he is a leader in his own way.
“I’ve always looked up to him, so it’s great having a friend on the team.”