The Baker Mayfield statue, Brent Venables’ football debut in Oklahoma and a hopeful weekend in Norman


NORMAN, Okla. – Karen Walker, her husband, Josh, and their 7-year-old son, Cannon, arrived at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium ready to celebrate on Saturday. It’s been 151 days since Lincoln Riley shocked Oklahoma football fans when he announced he was leaving for USC.

Karen marked the occasion by wearing an “IT AIN’T GOOD ENOUGH” shirt, a tribute to new Sooners coach Brent Venables, who returned to the plains after spending 1999-2011 as an assistant Oklahoma under Bob Stoops and the last nine seasons as Dabo. Swinney’s top lieutenant at Clemson.

Throughout the offseason, Venables challenged fans to “Pack the Palace”, a reference to the stadium’s nickname, “The Palace on the Prairie”. The Walkers were among more than 75,000 fans who answered his call, setting an Oklahoma record and giving Venables his first “victory” as a head coach.

Cannon showed his love for his favorite player, Baker Mayfield, by wearing the former quarterback’s trademark headband style just above his glasses. The white headbands, with “BAKER” written in crimson, were one of the gifts handed out to fans to mark Oklahoma’s new statue unveiled Saturday to celebrate the Heisman Trophy-winning walk-on.

Mayfield has had a tough offseason after his current team, the Cleveland Browns, was traded for Deshaun Watson, and OU fans can understand. Together they expired. Brent and Baker’s show turned the spring game into a tentpole revival.

The Sooners faithful got together and circled their boxcars, so to speak, to pull themselves together and remind the college football world that they don’t plan on going anywhere.

“A rebirth”, Karen called it.

Venables reveled in it, giving impassioned speeches from the center of the pitch before the game and again at half-time, shipping with any notion of discomfort on his first appearance as head coach. At times, he sounded like a professional wrestling announcer, excitedly pleading with fans to do their part.

“This place must be absolutely demoralizing, deafening,” Venables demanded.

Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said OU was expecting 70,000 fans, which would have already been the largest spring game crowd in the country. And fans even surpassed that, with an official total of 75,360.

“It was a special day,” Castiglione said. “The crowd was huge, by far the biggest we’ve ever had. And that really set the tone for what we want to create for our program going forward.”

More than 250 former players showed up – another record, according to OU.

“This program is not a person,” former Sooners coach Barry Switzer said. “This thing is a monster that was built years ago with Bud [Wilkinson] in the 1940s, and it continues today. We’re one of the top five programs in America, and we’ve remained that way, so we continue to have people supporting us the way we do.”

Even Mayfield, the longtime Sooners fan who grew up behind burnt orange enemy lines in Austin, Texas, seemed stunned by the presence of all his heroes. But none of them had a more incredible story than Mayfield’s run at that time.

“It’s a movie, it is what it is,” Stoops said. “I think it shows how special he is. To show up here and then win the starting job, become the Heisman Trophy winner, be the first pick in the draft. It’s just who he is. He’s a winner, and it’s just an amazing, amazing true story.”

Mike Jones, a former Swiss assistant who is now in business at Norman, has been longtime friends with Mayfield’s parents, James and Gina, and has known Baker since birth. Seeing Mayfield get his own statue is surreal for someone Jones literally watched grow up.

“At the Mayfields, when we watched bowling games, Baker always wanted to impersonate an Oklahoma Sooner,” Jones said. “I used to throw passes to him when he was 4 down the hall and watch him run into the wall. I thought he’d be a linebacker. He loves to hit things.”

All these years later, Stoops recalled when Mayfield showed up unannounced after his team’s first spring meeting, saying it was one of the best days of his life. Stoops said he had heard a rumor that Mayfield could leave Texas Tech – where he had started five games but had not been put on the stock market – and was interested in Oklahoma but that was not confirmed. .

“After a team meeting, a guy walked up to me and said, ‘Coach, I’m Baker Mayfield’ and I looked at him and smiled and said, ‘You’re sure as hell,'” Stoops said, recalling that the Sooners had just beaten Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and Trevor Knight, a redshirt freshman, was the game’s MVP.

“Baker decided, ‘I’m going to Oklahoma. I’m not asking who I’m going to have to compete against, that’s where I want to be. Mom, come get me,'” Jones said. “And Gina went to get him and dragged him to Norman.”

Now there’s a 9-foot-tall, 2,500-pound version of Mayfield forever, alongside some of those Sooners legends he idolized. Mayfield joined Billy Vessels, Steve Owens, Billy Sims, Jason White and Sam Bradford at Heisman Park, with Kyler Murray due to receive a statue next year.

The Mayfield statue was originally scheduled to be unveiled in 2020, but like most things that year, the pandemic delayed it. Oklahoma fan Mark Rayner thinks the timing worked out well.

“I think if you took a poll here right now, he would probably be voted the most beloved of the Sooners, especially in recent history,” he said. “It’s a great day for him to have a statue. He’s been in a tough time lately with all the negativity coming out of Cleveland.”

Mayfield was adopted by the city upon his return. He stopped at one of his favorite restaurants, Tarahumaras, where owners Alex Romero, 28, and his father, Efrain, had a long joke with Mayfield before starting a game for the Sooners, causing him to knowing that he can always become a busboy if nothing has worked for him.

“He still has the same sense of humor,” Alex said. “He came back [this weekend] and I thought there was no better way to give him a good laugh and a warm welcome home than to say, “Here’s that job application.” Actually, we misplaced the old one, but hopefully we’ll get another one from you. “”

Rayner said the excitement around Saturday’s ceremony and game combined to help the Sooners move on from a dramatic offseason that began Nov. 28 with Riley’s abrupt departure and was followed by transfers of top players, including Spencer Rattler, Caleb Williams. and Mario Williams. Several rookies also opted to follow Riley to the Trojans instead of sticking to their commitments to Oklahoma.

“It feels like the official start of a new era,” Rayner said. “Everyone is ready to move on after what happened in the fall.”

Well, almost everyone. Rayner didn’t mention Riley, but he didn’t have to.

He wore a T-shirt celebrating the greatest coaches in OU history, from Wilkinson to Switzer to Stoops, with Venables joining the list. He read:


“Just a little hit,” Rayner said.

But it was mostly old news. The story that fans focused on was that of Mayfield. There has been no quarterback controversy to debate this year, with Williams joining Riley in Southern California and Rattler leaving for South Carolina. The new-look offense played fast and transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who arrived from UCF, looked effective.

“This place is going in the right direction,” Mayfield said, reassuring the masses at halftime during the unveiling of his statue. “I need to talk to [Venables] yesterday in his office for 30 minutes, and I was ready to run through a wall. We are back. We never left, but we’re back. It’s pretty special to have this place packed like this for a time like this.”

After long months, the end of spring really looked like a renewal.

“I don’t think we could have ended up in a better place,” Josh Walker said, alongside Karen and Cannon. “Getting Venables back? Getting Baker back? Baker will find a home. It’ll be amazing. Yeah, we’re excited.”



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