Rose Bowl: Will Baker's illness leave Oklahoma in the soup?


Baker Mayfield has a cold.

My apologies for borrowing from the greatest magazine story ever written, by Gay Talese, for Esquire, in 1966, about Frank Sinatra.

But, hey, this may be the most talked-about case of nasal congestion in Tinsel Town since Talese profiled an ailing Sinatra in advance of the singer’s NBC special “A Man and His Music.”

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, winner of this year’s Heisman Trophy, failed to show for Friday’s scheduled media event in downtown Los Angeles.

Why is this important?

On Monday, at the Rose Bowl, Oklahoma faces Georgia in a national semifinal game in the College Football Playoff.

Mayfield is said to be battling something fierce and has lost his voice. A voice to a quarterback is almost as important as it is to a singer. Think about Peyton Manning screaming "Omaha!" or "58 is the MIKE" to his offensive line.

“Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint,” Talese wrote all those years ago.

Baker not only has to speak to be effective, he also has to run, throw and dodge the mighty defense of the Georgia Bulldogs.

Mayfield is expected to be, as recently conferred by the Heisman electorate, the most outstanding player on the Rose Bowl field. He is the team’s emotional leader and temperamental spitfire, ready to grab his crotch to incite, or inspire, or plant his flag on your 50.

Mayfield is also a sensational player, with 41 touchdown passes this year against only five interceptions. He has completed 71 % of his passes and almost all of his sentences.

If he can’t play, or communicate, or is otherwise physically impaired, Oklahoma can’t possibly be the same. Right? And not even Georgia wants that.

“I hope (Mayfield does get to play,” Bulldogs’ defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said Friday.

Most players have felt Mayfield’s pain.

“I actually played in a game I did have a fever,” Ledbetter said. “I just put on a thermal. I kind of tried to sweat it out. I was in the hotel coughing, throwing up. I still came out and played. Until I can’t play, I’m going to play.”

My guess is that Mayfield will play, and play well, because he has history on his side.

Sinatra’s voice came back in time to sing “The Lady is a Tramp.”

Athletes, entertainers and yes, even sportswriters, have overcome illness to do some of their finest work.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

I never won a gold medal at the Olympics, but I had strep throat in 1998 when skier Picabo Street won hers on a mountain top in Japan. I thought I wrote a fine story under the circumstances.

Baker Photo
Oklahoma's star quarterback called in sick for Friday's media day session for the Rose Bowl

I have been sick countless times while on assignment. The “good” thing about that is you can’t call in sick, cry for your mommy, or crawl into a bed. You have to pick yourself up and get the job done.

Trust me, Baker Mayfield isn’t going to miss his Monday wake-up call.

Skiers, as you might guess, get sick a lot.

Before the 2014 Olympics in Russia, I sat with gold medalist Ted Ligety as he coughed and sneezed his way through an interview.

“I’ve raced sick so many times,” he said.

In fact, Ligety had the flu when he stunned the world in 2006 by winning the Olympic combined event in Turino.

“It’s not really a big deal,” he said, “you just deal with it. A lot of racers have their best days when they’re sick.”

Ligety said sickness makes you focus.

“You don’t waste energy on all the frivolous stuff going around you.”

Being sick this week meant Mayfield didn’t have to waste his time Friday answering more questions about his sometimes petulant, on-field behavior. That, right there, is probably worth two tissue boxes.

Some of the sporting history's most memorable performances would have never happened if players came to their coaches with a note from their doctor.

Joe Montana went from kid to legend at Notre Dame with his “Chicken Soup” game against Houston in the 1979 Cotton Bowl. Montana was so sick his body temperature had dropped to 96 during the game. He was fed chicken soup at halftime and returned to the field with 7:37 left and the Irish trailing, 34-12.

Do I have to tell you what happened?

--In 1988, USC quarterback Rodney Peete crawled out of a hospital bed, with the measles, to beat UCLA.

Mayfield wouldn’t even be the first sick quarterback to lead his team to a Rose Bowl victory. In the 1984, UCLA quarterback Rick Neuheisel awoke the morning of the game feeling sick to his stomach. “I thought it was nerves,” Neuheisel said at the time.

It was probably food poisoning. Neuheisel tossed his cookies four times before kickoff but performed admirably in a 45-9 rout over Illinois.

Another thing Mayfield and Neuheisel have in common: both are former walk-on players.

Once you get better, in fact, winning sick is the best thing that can happen to your legacy.

Michael Jordan, you’ll remember, solidified his godliness with his “flu game” effort in the 1997 NBA finals. That game started with Ahmad Rashad breathlessly reporting:

“At 3:30 this morning, Michael Jordan woke up with flu like symptoms. He had a stomach ache and a headache, and he couldn’t go back to sleep. He threw up all night and as reported earlier he missed shoot around, but he was in bed all day and continued to throw up. As a matter of fact he got in here early. When I went to talk to him back in the back room, he was in a dark room trying to get some rest, but still throwing up. And Marv, I talked to him, I said ‘How do you feel?’ and he said ‘I really feel horrible.’ It is history in games where he’s either been hurt or sick, it’s been bad news for the opponent.”

Jordan not only lived, he scored 38 points and added seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and one block against the poor Utah Jazz.

Scottie Pippen carried Jordan off the court and Rashad carried Jordan’s bags back to the team bus.

The rest was the kind of history Mayfield hopes to make Monday.

Or the kind Sinatra did more than 50 years ago.

"The record shows, I blew my nose...and did it my way."[/membership]