<
>

Baker Mayfield's new inspiration: Russell Westbrook

play
Baker Mayfield inspired by Russell Westbrook? (1:29)

Jake Trotter joins SportsCenter to explain why Oklahoma's star QB has so much in common with Russell Westbrook. (1:29)

NORMAN, Okla. -- Shortly after agreeing to an extension to remain with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook showed up on the University of Oklahoma sidelines last fall sporting a No. 44 Sooners jersey, the number of former OU great Brian Bosworth.

By coincidence, Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield exited the locker room after the game donning an "In Russ We Trust" Thunder T-shirt.

It was a fascinating juxtaposition.

No two other athletes -- and for that matter, likely no two other people -- hold a bigger responsibility in upholding morale in the Sooner State than Mayfield and Westbrook.

"It's either Sooner football or Thunder basketball here," Mayfield told ESPN.com. "I enjoy it because people go nuts for it. It makes it fun. You can tell when the teams are playing well with the atmosphere around town. The fans are a lot happier. There's also a lot of pressure. A lot of standards to live up to."

Mayfield helped pull OU out of its funk two seasons ago by leading the Sooners to the College Football Playoff.

Then last year, Westbrook saved summertime in Oklahoma by re-signing with OKC one month after Kevin Durant had ditched him -- and the state -- for Golden State's super team. Since then, not only has Westbrook refused to allow the Thunder to plummet into the abyss, as so many other franchises had done after losing a superstar, he has willed OKC back into the playoffs.

"I've never seen anyone play the way he has. It's been so much fun to watch," Mayfield said. "He's got a rock -- or a boulder -- on his shoulder. There's a lot of stuff deep down that gives him that motivation."

Mayfield should know.

That is just one of the many ways the two stewards of state spirit are connected.

The parallel obviously isn't perfect.

Westbrook boasts world-class athleticism; Mayfield thrives off his grit. Mayfield enjoys engaging with media; Westbrook would as soon ingest mouthwash than answer questions. As Westbrook's MVP candidacy has soared, Mayfield's spring has been soiled by a public-intoxication arrest.

Yet while Mayfield protests that he's "not worthy" of comparisons to Westbrook, the similarities -- from their relentlessness, self-belief and passion to their accomplishment, team situation and boulder-sized chips on their shoulders, derived from being overlooked over and over on their way to stardom -- are palpable.

"I think he genuinely loves competing," Mayfield said. "I think the reason he never quits is he's out there enjoying every single bit of it. He's going to go hard no matter what.

"I think the same way. I'm going to give it my all whenever I step out there because I genuinely enjoy playing the game of football. I'm going to give it my all, no matter what, no matter who's out there with me."

That's one reason why, at their respective levels, few are more accomplished.

Last week, Westbrook broke Oscar Robertson's triple-double record on the way to becoming the first player since the "Big O" to average double figures in points, rebounds and assists in an NBA season.

Last year, Mayfield set the FBS mark for passing efficiency. This season, he could join Herschel Walker as the only other player since the 1940s to finish in the top four of the Heisman Trophy voting three times.

Only by overcoming long odds behind a uniquely strong self-belief did either get to this point.

Out of high school, Westbrook held just a couple of mid-major offers before UCLA came up with a scholarship late in the process. With only one Power 5 scholarship invitation, Mayfield wound up walking on to Texas Tech.

From there, that unwavering self-belief for either never abated.

Westbrook knew he could be an NBA point guard, when others doubted he had enough polish. And after transferring from Texas Tech, Mayfield was steadfast he could be OU's starting quarterback, even as Trevor Knight seemed entrenched behind center after beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

"People actually called me crazy," Mayfield said. "They told me I would never touch the field here. I just had to believe in myself."

Perhaps having overcome such outside doubt is why both continue to play with such relentlessness and passion.

Westbrook's dashes to the rim with abandon have become almost NBA lore; and the series of improbable comebacks he's led in recent weeks have been virtually inconceivable.

Mayfield plays quarterback with a similar abandon, which has already led to a pair of game-ending concussions. His refusal to give up or go down has come to define him, too. No sequence underscored that more than when he rallied OU to an overtime victory at Tennessee from a late deficit with a string of wild first-down conversions.

That shared competitive drive has left Mayfield and Westbrook anything but stoic. (Just ask the TCU safety Mayfield stiff-armed after scoring a touchdown last season.)

"I can be nice off the field," Mayfield said. "On the field, I'm a completely different person. I'm going to try and beat the crap out of you to win.

"That's what you see in [Westbrook]. That's why he celebrates like that when he scores, or hits the game-winning shot."

For either, there's no time for niceties on the field. That is also why both are constantly on the hunt for adversaries to keep their bottomless buckets of motivation full.

Mayfield confessed he still holds on to every perceived slight, no matter how innocuous or far in the past. That's why during the week of the playoff against Clemson, he inexplicably referenced TCU coach Gary Patterson not offering him a scholarship.

Mayfield sees that same habit in Westbrook.

"Watching some of his interviews, where he'll act like he doesn't know what's going on -- he'll say, 'Who is he?'" Mayfield said, referring to Westbrook's response to Steph Curry giving an MVP nod to rival James Harden. "I think that's pretty funny. But I know exactly how he feels. He uses everything for motivation."

Westbrook's motivation for this season was proving he could carry the Thunder without Durant. Westbrook didn't just achieve that. He delivered one of the top statistical seasons in NBA history.

"There was a lot of pressure to it, but he's just gone out and balled out every night," Mayfield said. "He's performed, led his team to the playoffs, made a bunch of clutch shots, set records."

"He absolutely deserves the MVP."

Like Westbrook, Mayfield will be charged with carrying his team more than ever this season. The three other stars from last year's OU offense -- receiver Dede Westbrook and running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine -- are all now gone. In that vein, Mayfield said he has marveled at Westbrook's leadership, which he's hoping to channel with the Sooners. That included him, just this week, calling out himself and his teammates for not meeting a higher off-the-field standard.

"I have to take that mindset," Mayfield said. "Until we get guys to have that the confidence to step up, I'll have to step up the leadership.

"But I don't have to do anything special on the field, like Russ' triple-doubles."

Barring a series of Thunder upsets in the playoffs, Westbrook's incredible triple-double run soon will come to an end. Then it will be on the Sooner State's other unrelenting star, carrying that boulder on his shoulder, to pick up where Westbrook left off.

"I have to rise up to those expectations," Mayfield said. "But I wouldn't have it any other way."