M y first year at OU, I used to sneak onto the field late at night when the stadium was completely empty.
As a transfer student I wasn’t eligible to play in any games that season, but I decided if I was only allowed to practice, I wanted to be the best damn practice player the program had ever seen. I wanted to prove myself with every single rep, because I understood just how valuable those reps were. I needed to be impressive on every single play. So early on, I’d sneak onto the field so that I could go through the next day’s practice script. The security guards at the stadium didn’t care for that, so I’d get the boot after awhile, but I’m a visual learner so just having that time on the field to picture myself leading the offense was invaluable.
Eventually I managed to get the security code for the indoor practice facility, so I started going there at night. I’d be out on the field by myself, calling out imaginary signals to my imaginary receivers so they could get open against the imaginary defense. I’m sure I probably looked ridiculous. I can only imagine what some people must have thought about this new walk-on screaming out formations by himself in the middle of a dark field.
The past four years have been filled with huge moments on the biggest of stages, but that’s where it all started for me.
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My first thought when I got to OU was simple: Don’t blow it.
I still remember that ride up to Norman to enroll in classes. It was about a five-hour drive from my home in Austin — a trip I’d made many times in the past. But this trip was different. I was with my mom and it was icy outside, snowing a bit, and I’ll never forget how surreal it felt as we arrived on campus and it truly dawned on me how big of an opportunity was ahead of me. Every other time I’d visited Norman, it was as a fan. Now I was a student — now, I was a Sooner football player. Sure, I wasn’t slated to be the starter. Hell, I didn’t even have a scholarship. I was a walk-on — just like I’d been at Texas Tech. But I had a shot, which was a hell of a lot more than I had coming out of high school.
And all I could think about was how I didn’t want to blow it.
If you’re reading this, you probably know about a few of the things I’ve done on the field or apologized for off of it. All of that — the good and the bad — is stuff I’m grateful for. It was all part of an experience that has changed my life.
It was never about the stats or the press clippings or anything like that. For me, it was always was about earning the right to call myself an Oklahoma Sooner. Earning the right to wear that uniform I grew up worshipping. My pursuit of that goal led me to accomplish things that seemed all but impossible.
And now, as I prepare for this next step, I find myself extremely thankful to this university for the greatest gift imaginable: the ability to dream even bigger.
Remember that 2003 team?
Jason White, Teddy Lehman, Tommie Harris, Mark Clayton.
That was probably my favorite Oklahoma football team growing up. It wasn’t just about how good they were — and they were really damn good — what I really loved about them was their attitude. They carried themselves with this swagger, you could see how much fun they were having out there.
Best of all: They beat Texas 65–13 that year.
You have to understand, as an eight-year-old diehard Sooner fan living in Austin, that was huge for me. One of my dad’s old high school coaches ended up taking a job at OU, so that was how my family got connected to the Sooners. My parents and that coaching staff immediately identified with one another as a group of derelicts, so we took quite a few family trips up to Norman throughout my childhood to watch games. I watched every game and while I loved when we won, but I really loved when we beat Texas. That meant a year of bragging rights over every Longhorn fan at Lakeway Elementary — so basically, every other kid at my school.
The other great thing about 2003? This:
I loved those NCAA Football games growing up. Every year, I’d create myself as a player and play for OU. I was always a running back, which goes to show that maybe it is possible to dream too big. I’d hand myself the ball 50 or 60 times a game. Total workhorse. Countless hours played. Broke every record. Amazing time in my life.
Every season, the Sooners would go undefeated, and I’d win the Heisman. That was the dream.
Unfortunately, my reality in ninth grade was that I was 5’ 2” and a stout 140 pounds. I played quarterback for our JV team at Lake Travis. Our very first scrimmage was against Fort Hood, which had a lot of military kids, so those guys were always tough to play against. And they were big, I remember that. The very first play of that scrimmage, the ball was snapped, and I rolled out to the left. For some reason, instead of fully rolling out, I stopped halfway. As soon as I stopped, this man-child rocked me from my blindside and drove my shoulder into the ground. I separated my AC joint in my throwing shoulder. On the first play. So yeah, good start.
What really pissed me off wasn’t necessarily the injury itself, but how it happened. I stopped too early on the rollout. I made a dumb decision, and my body paid for it. Honestly, that experience was a lesson that helped me a lot in the long run. I had to really understand and accept that, straight up, I could not afford to make bad decisions on the football field. I needed to be able to compensate mentally for whatever I might have lacked physically. At that point, I was a little kid getting pushed around out there. I wasn’t going to let that happen again.
It’s funny because sometimes I’ll get asked about why I decided to walk-on at OU when they already had an established starter at quarterback. The truth is, if I was scared of competition, I would never have been able to play quarterback at Lake Travis. While I was there we had Garrett Gilbert, who was a national player of the year. And after him, Michael Brewer became the starter. He would go on to play at Texas Tech and Virginia Tech.
I was the backup heading into the first game of my junior season. We were playing against our rival, Westlake, another school that prided itself on quarterbacks. They have two Super Bowl-winning QBs currently in the league, Nick Foles and Drew Brees. That game was always a pretty crazy atmosphere. We played at DKR, UT’s stadium, in Austin in front of 35,000 fans.
The third play of that game our starter went down with an injury. I went in to replace him and never really looked back. We ended up winning that game, and the next 15 games after it on our way to becoming state champions.
There were a lot of memorable moments from that season, but there’s one memory in particular that I think ultimately put me on the path that led me to where I am today. It happened the day after we beat Cedar Park to win the district title. My dad and I drove up to Norman for a recruiting weekend. Because my dad was connected to the program, he was able to get me an invite. The entire ride there I was envisioning this kind of dream scenario, where Bob Stoops tells me how good I looked against Cedar Park and offers me a scholarship on the spot, which I would accept as soon as the words left his lips.
That wasn’t exactly how it played out.
It wasn’t long after I got there that I realized I wasn’t really a priority. You could tell which recruits the coaching staff was giving a little extra attention to, and I wasn’t one of them. Eventually I got to introduce myself to a couple of coaches, and they kind of gave me a look up and down, noticed my size and that was that. It would be the last time I heard from OU for a couple of years.
The car ride home was almost entirely silent. It was a big blow for me. Being passed over by my dream program with one look turned out to be a pretty important moment in my life. It made that chip I’ve always had on my shoulder bigger than it’s ever been. It pushed me to work even harder to prove that I belonged.
And in the end, I think it’s a big part of why I did end up where I belong.
Richard Rowe/Icon Sportswire
I’ll get asked a lot about my approach to the game and my behavior on the field. Why did I make a big display after Kansas refused to shake my hand after the coin toss or when I heard Baylor’s players talking trash before we played against them?
Basically, Why the attitude, Baker?
The truth is, I’m always going to remember what it was like being that kid who was too small to even be given a second look. I’m going to remember what it feels like to be doubted and how amazing it feels to overcome that doubt. In order to be my best, I need to play with an edge. I’ve always been energetic, and what I’ve found is that by showing my emotions, my teammates bring out their emotions as well, which can take everyone’s performance to another level.
Sometimes my passion has been mistaken for immaturity — and there definitely were some moments when I was out of line that I ultimately apologized for. But these past four years, I was living out my lifelong dream, and I’m proud that I did it on my terms.
That’s not to say everything has been perfect. I’ll never forget when we got blown out in embarrassing fashion by Ohio State at home last year. I was furious with myself. We’d started the year with a 1–2 record, which was just unacceptable. After that loss to Ohio State, I told everyone in that locker room that from that point forward I would do everything in my power to get better. I told them we were going to go undefeated the rest of the season because we were going to want it more than any other team we faced. And from that point forward, if a rep in practice wasn’t run perfectly, we re-did it until it was perfect. We all proved we were up for the challenge, and eventually we did win out. We even sent two players to the Heisman ceremony — shouts to Dede.
The next year, when we went into Columbus with everybody doubting us and ended up shocking the college football world by blowing out Ohio State on their field. A lot of attention got drawn to the celebration after when I planted our flag right at midfield in The Horseshoe. I guess if you consider that act on its own, it’s not the best look. But maybe if you were a lifelong Sooner fan who had been stewing over a really bad loss for a year, and you might understand why my emotions got the best of me. Maybe I should have saved it for the locker room… but man, that was an amazing night. One of many that I’ve experienced these past few years. And as I prepare to move on, I feel a lot of gratitude for the people who made this journey possible.
I’m always going to remember what it was like being that kid who was too small to even be given a second look.
I’m incredibly thankful for all of my teammates. I’m always going to remember the big plays and celebrations, but more than that, I’ll remember the way you guys always had my back when I needed it. Last February, after I was arrested, I’m not sure how I could have made it through that time without the guys in the locker room. To a lot of people, I became a punchline in a viral video, but you guys always saw me as more than a really dumb mistake I made. We didn’t win the national championship like we wanted, but the experiences we shared together are something I’ll always hold onto. Like, man, this has been so damn fun.
I’m very thankful to all the coaches who have held this program to the same high standard despite facing challenges that might have derailed other teams. I still remember sitting on my couch last spring when a few of my boys back home started texting me saying our coach was retiring. When I found out, I immediately called Coach Riley and met with him and Coach Stoops at our facility. That’s where Coach Stoops told me personally that he was retiring and that Lincoln would take his place. At first, I was completely caught off-guard because Bob Stoops wasn’t just the only head coach I’d had at OU — he was the single figure I associated most with the program. All those years I’d been following Sooner football, he was the guy on the sidelines. So as a lifelong fan, hearing he was leaving all of a sudden almost felt like a punch in the stomach.
At the same time, I’d spent two years playing in Lincoln’s offense and knew he’d be able to step in and keep things rolling. And that’s exactly what he did and will continue to do for a long, long time to come. What Lincoln does particularly well is that he thrives on actually communicating rather than yelling. That’s why he’s managed to rise up the coaching ranks so fast. The way he builds up personal relationships is a direct reflection of his success. As team, we lost some games, but we always felt prepared to play. Straight up, I wouldn’t be where I am without Lincoln Riley, and I’m looking forward to staying close with him as both of us progress in our careers.
Finally, there’s a special place in my heart for all the Sooner fans out there. It doesn’t feel right to call this a goodbye because I was a Sooner long before I enrolled at OU, and I’ll be a Sooner long after my playing days are over. So this isn’t the last you’ll see of me in Norman, not by a longshot. To all of you who supported me over the years, and even those who doubted me, I appreciate you. Nothing about this has been easy, but nothing that’s worthwhile ever is.
This has been the experience of a lifetime, and regardless of what comes next, I’ll always remember what it was like to be that unheralded walk-on who snuck onto the field to get a few extra reps in. Thank you for giving me a shot.