College Football and Hope, or, Baker Mayfield as Dale Cooper

The following contains spoilers for Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: the Return.

Those of you familiar with my sports opinions know that I’m not particularly fond of the NFL. There are a lot of reasons for this; the sport’s administrative body is willfully ignorant of the damage the sport does to its players, most owners are pretty much completely reprehensible, the player’s union is almost uniquely weak, and the league is so unflinchingly pro-police and military that the slightest criticism of American police practices or foreign policy can get a player blacklisted.

Even if none of these things were true: even if Colin Kaepernick was playing for the Washington Senators on a fully-guaranteed contract, protected by rules changes to reduce the frequency and severity of concussions, I still don’t think I’d be that interested in the league. Ultimately, my problem with the NFL is that the culture is ruled by cynicism. The ruling mantra of the day is “defense wins championships”, and play-calling is conservative and uninspired. The draft is focused on fitting players into pre-existing molds of what a player in their position “should” be. Idiosyncrasies? To the NFL, these are just points of inefficiency. The last Madden game I played was Madden 15; in it, one line of announcer chatter was the self-assured proclamation that “there are no miracles in the National Football League” — As if that was a good thing!

College football could not be more different. College football doesn’t just have miracles; it’s defined by them. Hell, the 2013 Auburn Tigers made a habit of winning games via divine intervention; one team in one season brought us the Miracle at Jordan-Hare and the Kick Six. Today, Texas played Maryland and lost. That was funny, but along the way we saw two blocked field goals, a kickoff fumble, a pick six, and more. So many things went so fascinatingly wrong and yet it was incredibly entertaining to watch. Moreover, every play was pushing the needle on one of the most contentious questions in college football: is Texas back?

This is a ridiculous question, right? Texas was 5-7 last year and are operating under a new coach. Surely no meaningful conclusion can be reached after one game, especially since we did this last opening week after their overtime victory over Notre Dame and were totally, totally wrong. Yet we did it, because college football is fundamentally an optimistic sport.

Even hatred of Texas is born of optimism. Texas should be good; they’ve recruited well and are headed by a talented coach. That they continue to struggle is, from my point of few, cosmic justice; in a way, it’s just as much a miracle as a Hail Mary pass flying true. One might expect that Texas will inevitably get the ship righted, it’s too big and too rich not to, but I have the privilege to hope that they’ll be bad forever. I’m not writing this article to rag on Texas, however. I’m writing to tell you that when it comes to college football and hope, the one name that comes to mind is Baker Mayfield.

A lot of the time the focus when it comes to Baker is on the idea that he’s fueled by #disrespekt. Coming out of college his only Power-5 offer was to Washington State, so he walked on at Tech. When he got hurt and replaced at Tech, he walked on to Oklahoma. His quest to Silence the Haters has led him to two Big XII championships, the college football playoff, and back-to-back Heisman top-5 finishes. When this season is over, he will likely be remembered as the greatest quarterback in Oklahoma history. I think, perhaps, the haters have been silenced, which means we can move on to talking about how watching him play is to experience unfettered optimism.

Baker is supremely talented. He’s got a strong, accurate arm, great pocket presence, and almost supernatural escapability. These things aren’t what make him Baker Mayfield, though. Those things are what allow him to execute, but the beauty of Baker’s play isn’t in execution, it’s in creation. When Baker drops back, there’s a sense that absolutely anything could happen. His ability to scramble while keeping his eyes downfield, manufacturing just enough space to set and throw as he evades defenders, has been the most reliable source of miracles in my college football viewing diet. When I’m not watching Baker, I’m not thinking about quick releases or checkdowns; I’m wondering what will he do next? What CAN he do next? It’s a fundamentally hopeful experience—the sort that inspires tortured metaphors, so hold onto your hats. To me, if the NFL’s prototypical quarterback was 24’s Jack Bauer, Baker Mayfield is Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper.

FBI agent Dale Cooper is certainly an expert, and good at his job. He’s an excellent detective and a capable shot. These things, however, don’t even begin to get to the heart of what makes Coop great. He’s entirely unafraid to embrace the unusual in his attempts to solve the case of Laura Palmer’s death, and when that case takes a turn for the inexplicable or the paranormal, Coop is absolutely unflappable and matches the impossible with the unconventional, embarking on vision quests and divining inspiration from Tibetan mysticism. Still Cooper brings even more than this to the table, and it’s in his unwavering sense of right and wrong and faith that good will triumph over evil on every scale. In Twin Peaks, evil isn’t just supernatural serial killer BOB, it’s everything that causes the small Washington town to fail to live up to its ideal, and Cooper stands opposed to all of it. He is an agent of unambiguous good above all else, and in this, like Baker, he is a force in favor of optimism.

I don’t think I need to tell you that most of 2017 has been a tremendous bummer, to say the least. From the election, to the inauguration, to literally every day since the inauguration, including the ones that involved the threat of a nuclear exchange or the mobilization of neo-nazis carrying tiki torches, up to the horror of hurricane Harvey, there has not been much of note to inspire optimism. It was a strange kind of synchronicity, then, that led to the return of Baker Mayfield to my life happening the same week that Dale Cooper truly returned to us in the incredible, fascinating, frustrating, and aptly-named Twin Peaks: The Return. After spending the first 15 episodes either trapped outside of reality or stuck in the shoes of semi-conscious-walking-vegetable insurance salesman Dougie Jones (Twin Peaks is a weird show, okay), Dale Cooper awakes from a coma and returns hope to a world that has until now been at the mercy of Coop’s inscrutably evil doppelganger Mr. C. Coop springs from a hospital bed, and gets immediately to business, wrapping up the plot threads that led to prosperity for and a revitalized marriage between Dougie and his wife, Janey-E, the destruction of an insurance fraud ring, and a pair of Vegas casino-owning brothers turning over a new leaf. Suddenly, there was reason to believe that in a world plagued by darkness, the light had a puncher’s chance.

Today, in OU’s game against UTEP, I saw the same power of hope in Baker Mayfield’s 19-of-20, 329-yard for 3 TD performance. When Baker rolls out of the pocket, you aren’t worried that he’s cutting off half the field, you’re on your seat waiting to see just what he can do. There are few things in media, fiction or otherwise, that can fill you with the conviction that in spite of everything wrong with this world, no matter what challenges we face, we have reason to hope in spite of everything that good will win. Twin Peaks makes me feel this way. The first finale of The Adventure Zone (a great podcast you should listen to, by the way) made me feel this way. And, yes, Baker Mayfield throwing touchdowns to Grant Calcaterra, Cedarian Lamb, and Mark Andrews made me feel this, too.

Maybe that’s dumb. Sports are, in general, pretty dumb. What it isn’t, though— and this is important— is escapist. When I watch Kyle MacLachlan act, or Baker pass, or listen to the McElroy brothers crack jokes and tell stories, I don’t find myself retreating into the comfort of a world where nothing’s wrong. Instead, I’m drawn to the possibility that if hope can be found, I should search it out and seize upon it. If loving and trusting one another can solve a murder, could save the world, or, yes, score a touchdown, then maybe loving and trusting one another can get us out of the mess we’re in. Every time Baker drops back to pass, cynicism dies, which is something that I don’t think the NFL will ever be capable of. I want to live my life the way Baker Mayfield drops back to pass, and I think maybe so should you.

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