LOS ANGELES — Sequestered back in his hotel room yet again, Baker Mayfield flipped on the television Saturday morning and saw that the dominating storyline of the College Football Playoff at the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual hadn’t changed.
In fact, considering Mayfield was now skipping a fourth Rose Bowl event due to some mysterious illness, the chatter had only amplified.
Finally, Mayfield decided it was time for him to make an appearance. And, as far as college football press conferences go, what an appearance it was.
Mayfield hailed a driver from the team hotel two miles away, and arrived at the LA Hotel Downtown, where the rest of the Sooners had been assembled for media day for close to half an hour.
Up in the second-floor ballroom, Oklahoma backup quarterback Kyler Murray had a growing horde of reporters circling his table, pecking away at the unbelievable possibility that he might have to start in place of the Heisman Trophy winner in one of the biggest games in school history. Murray kept saying he’d be ready to start, likely knowing full well he wouldn’t need to.
At that moment, a growing buzz could be heard coming from the nearby corner where Mayfield’s previously empty podium seat had unexpectedly been filled by the most important player of the CFP.
Mayfield had arrived.
As those around him gradually flocked away, Murray went back to scrolling on his phone. And the entire state of Oklahoma collectively exhaled.
“I’m not dying,” Mayfield said in his first public comments in 16 days. “I’ll be playing and we are focused on our goal.”
Insiders around the Sooners all week had privately maintained that snow would befall Manhattan Beach before Mayfield would miss the Georgia game. And in the 15 minutes Oklahoma’s practices had been opened up to cameras the previous two days, Mayfield certainly looked well enough in passing drills, too.
But with every absence off the field for regularly scheduled team events and media appearances, consternation about Mayfield’s status grew.
And though he still had a difficult time talking Saturday, Mayfield decided it was time for him to speak for himself.
“My teammates don’t need to answer questions on my behalf,” said Mayfield, barely audible. “This whole thing is not about me. Oklahoma is here to play a playoff game. We are here to win a game and that is what it needs to be about.”
After running through the college football awards circuit from Atlanta to New York earlier this month, Mayfield got a few bowl practices in before heading home to Austin, Texas, Dec. 22 for Christmas. That’s when he said he began to feel ill.
“Something going around, flu-like,” he said. “My mom was pretty worried to send me out here like that.”
Mayfield admitted his hotel room has been littered with “lots of medicine, boxes of tea and honey and lemon.” He said he’d become so sick of drinking tea that he was trying coffee Saturday, though he still put honey and lemon in it. “My voice sounds like this because I was yelling at practice. Yesterday was the best I felt. … I hope I’m 100 percent by Monday — I think I will be.”
Riley had been hoping that Mayfield would attend media day, if only to eliminate the distractions about his condition. Then he woke up Saturday morning not feeling well again. Riley actually didn’t know Mayfield had left the hotel until he looked up and saw him across the room.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Riley said. “I told him that if he felt well enough to do it, he should come do it. He got it out of the way and everyone got to see he’s alive and able to walk and the world isn’t coming to an end.”
On the other side, the Bulldogs never were hoodwinked into thinking Mayfield wouldn’t play. In fact, only Georgia coach Kirby Smart succeeded in downplaying Mayfield’s illness Saturday better than Riley.
“I mean, we’ve got guys sick, too,” he said. “It’s just not as big a deal because they didn’t win the Heisman. To be honest with you, I didn’t even really know what was going on other than the last two days everybody has made a big deal about it. It hasn’t been a big deal for us.”
Before long, Mayfield was back to his usual bold self, too, minus the raspy voice.
He referenced the Big 12 haters (“What they don’t realize is we have the best offenses in the country,” he said).
He scoffed at Vegas having made Georgia the two-point favorite (“We are not an underdog”).
And with that, an actual buzzer sounded, signifying the end of Oklahoma’s media day session.
Next to the stage, All-American left tackle Orlando Brown, protector of Mayfield’s blindside these last three seasons, was ready, too.
“Gotta go!” said Brown, who put his arm around Mayfield, then whisked him away, out of the room, down the escalator and through the front doors.
For a little more tea. And a lot more rest.