As surprised as Tim Nickens was to find himself sitting next to Baker Mayfield at a Tampa Bay Rays game this past October, the media consultant was even more surprised by how nice the Buccaneers’ new quarterback was.
A steady flow of kids approached Mayfield to get autographs and pictures.
“He’s taking selfies with all of them, and he’s holding the camera for them,” Nickens said. “They want a selfie, but then they kind of just look at him.”
“They don’t know how to do it. He takes the camera. He takes the picture. He’s very good with them.”
Nickens was so impressed with Mayfield that after the game he told a friend he’d just met the nicest pro athlete.
Nice hasn’t always been a word associated with Mayfield.
The character traits most associated with the legendary OU quarterback are more along the lines of confident, brash, cocky even. As much as Sooners everywhere loved Mayfield, he rubbed lots of others the wrong way.
But as he prepares to lead the NFC South champion (yes, division champion!) Bucs into Monday night’s playoff game against fellow Sooner alum Jalen Hurts and the Eagles, Mayfield has become something else, too.
This is the same guy who tried to run from Arkansas police the winter before his Heisman Trophy season. The same guy who grabbed his crotch during a game at Kansas during his Heisman season. The same guy who planted flags and threw shade and seemed to relish in the sports hate.
But he’s also the same guy who led Cleveland to the playoffs for the first time in forever in 2020, played hurt during much of the following season, then found himself pushed out after the Browns made the shameful decision to sign Deshaun Watson.
The same guy who played for not one but two very bad teams the next season.
The same guy who landed in Tampa this season to take over for (gulp) the retiring Tom Brady, who might be a cyborg but is also the most successful quarterback in NFL history.
Oh, and Mayfield also filed a court petition before the season seeking information about whether $12 million placed in an investment firm was misappropriated. Some of the people working at the firm happen to be Mayfield’s family members
He won’t be mistaken for Lot, but Mayfield’s path hasn’t exactly been easy.
But in taking over for a legend in Tampa Bay, Mayfield put his head down and got to work. The Bucs started 4-7 but rallied to win five of their last six games. Included was a come-from-behind win at Atlanta where Mayfield threw the game-winning touchdown pass with 31 seconds remaining. The following week at Green Bay, he became the first visiting quarterback to have a perfect passer rating at Lambeau Field.
Even though the Tampa Bay offense has struggled down the stretch — Mayfield is dealing with injuries to his ribs and ankle — he has gotten big props from teammates and coaches.
“He’s done a lot for us this year,” Tampa Bay head coach Todd Bowles said during a midweek press conference last month. “You can’t imagine the things you don’t see on the field that he’s done for us from a team standpoint, from a mentality standpoint, from a bringing guys together and bringing guys along standpoint.”
Offensive coordinator Dave Canales told reporters earlier this season, “He cares. He cares about his guys. He cares about all of us. He came here, and from the jump, he wanted to meet with certain guys and really start to develop the relationship.”
Left tackle Tristan Wirfs told the Tampa Bay Times, “I had a relationship with Tom (Brady), but it wasn’t like the relationship I have with Bake. … Tom was like more of a, not a coach, but as a 21-year-old kid seeing Tom Brady, that’s how I looked at him. I’m not going to go out and have beers with Tom, you know? So it’s just a little bit different in that regard.”
A recent headline in the Times proclaimed, “Relatable Baker Mayfield was perfect QB to follow Tom Brady with Bucs.”
Who’d have thought that the No. 1 overall draft pick turned journeyman would be able to take over for Brady?
“If I take a step back and really look at it, of all the things that I’ve had to weather in the last year, it really speaks volumes to this place right here,” Mayfield recently told reporters in Tampa. “To be able to come in and be myself, they’ve allowed me to do that.”
And it turns out Mayfield is a more likable guy than he’s been in years.
Nickens, the media consultant who ended up next to Mayfield at the Rays game, says he senses the quarterback’s popularity reaching far and wide. Nickens has lived in the Tampa Bay area for more than two decades — he worked at the Tampa Bay Times where he won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial — so he has seen many Bucs quarterbacks come and go.
Brady was beloved because of his success.
“I think the community has kind of embraced him because compared to Brady,” Nickens said, “he seems like a regular guy.”
Before Mayfield left the Rays game that day in October, he turned to Nickens.
“Let’s get a picture,” Nickens remembers Mayfield saying.
He took Nickens’ iPhone and took a selfie of Nickens and his wife, Bridget.
“It was great,” Nickens said, chuckling. “He seems very nice.”
Very likable, too.