CHARLOTTE – When the Panthers traded for Baker Mayfield last July, they added a quarterback with playoff experience and a storied level of on-field passion.
What Carolina may not have expected from the trade was a legion of new fans rooted over 1,000 miles west of Charlotte.
Mayfield created a legacy in Norman, Oklahoma as a star quarterback for the Sooners from 2015-2017, and devoted fans who watched him go from walk-on to Heisman Trophy winner have followed his professional career to a Panthers fandom.
Mayfield cultivated a deep fanbase willing to wear orange on Sundays, despite rivalries with orange-tinged Texas and Oklahoma State, while he was in Cleveland for four seasons.
But over in Norman, a sea of blue could be emerging.
Eddie Radosevich, an Oklahoma graduate who has covered the Sooners for over 10 years and hosts a morning show on 107.7 The Franchise in Oklahoma City, said he's seen Sooner fans follow the NFL careers of former stars such as DeMarco Murray, Sam Bradford, and Kyler Murray. But the appreciation for Mayfield has become "far and away number one" since he was drafted.
"It's been Baker for a lot of people," Radosevich said. "Ironically enough, they're all Carolina fans now. I think they've all kind of traded in the Cleveland stuff."
Mayfield requested a trade from Cleveland in March, one day before the Browns acquired Deshaun Watson, and attended Oklahoma's spring football game the next month. He said Sooners fans had a message for him given the circumstances.
"I think the one thing they were all grateful for – when I went back for the spring game, they said they were happy to not be wearing orange again, when it came to the University of Texas or Oklahoma State," Mayfield said. "They were happy about that."
Blake Bowersock graduated from Oklahoma in 2001 and leads the OU Club of Charlotte, an Oklahoma alumni group. He was also at the Sooners' spring game, where they dedicated a statue to Mayfield to their "Heisman Park" row of former stars.
A longtime Sooners fan, Bowersock admitted he didn't pay much attention to professional football – until Mayfield went into the league.
Bowersock, who has lived in Charlotte for over six years, said he used to hope for the chance to catch a Browns game on TV while Mayfield played there. But now that the quarterback is in his city, Bowersock made his first NFL ticket purchase.
He said he plans to come to Bank of America Stadium for his first professional football game to see Mayfield against Murray when the Panthers play the Cardinals in Week 4.
Bowersock said he originally wanted to represent Oklahoma, like a Sooners fan he saw on a TV broadcast of the Panthers-Bills preseason game, but he may make a Mayfield-specific purchase for the occasion.
"I've gone to OU football games for 40 years, but I did just buy my first NFL ticket," Bowersock said. "I desperately want to wear a red OU shirt, but I don't want people to think I'm an Arizona fan, so (I'm) probably not going to do that."
Jeff Spray graduated from Oklahoma in 1982 and has lived in Charlotte for 30 years. He called himself an "adopted" Panthers fan by way of living in the city, but he said Mayfield coming to Carolina has made him "more attentive" for the season.
"When you have that college connection, you get a little bit warm about it," Spray said. "I'm kind of thankful that Cleveland goofed up and kind of let him slip away."
Bowersock said he still feels goosebumps when he recalls his favorite Mayfield memory, attending the Sooners' 2015 come-from-behind victory over Tennessee in Knoxville.
It was Mayfield's first season at the helm of Oklahoma's offense, and it was one of the first times Mayfield flashed the potential that saw him eventually lead the Sooners to two College Football Playoff appearances and earn him the No. 1 overall spot in the 2018 NFL Draft.
"His passion for the game is just unmatched," Bowersock said. "Show me another quarterback that's as fired up on the sidelines as he is. I just don't think it exists, and it's totally authentic and legit, which is awesome."
Mayfield, a former three-star recruit who walked on at Texas Tech and Oklahoma, showed Sooners fans a mentality Oklahomans could relate to, Radosevich said.
"He's one of those guys that you would want – you know the cliche line – in an alley with you," Radosevich said. "I think that's what endeared himself to a lot of Oklahoma fans. There are a lot of Oklahoma fans that saw themselves in what he was able to do. Just the way he carried himself, it was kind of that Oklahoma spirit."
Mayfield grew up in Austin, Texas – OU enemy territory across the Red River – but was a lifelong Oklahoma fan, which Radosevich figured also played into the kinship. Bowersock agreed with that sentiment.
On the field, Radosevich said Mayfield added juice to a Sooners offense that had stagnated the year before he started in 2015. Oklahoma followed an 8-5 season without Mayfield with three straight years of 11 or more wins.
"He elevated things," Radosevich said. "He brought back the fire that a lot of people thought was missing from the program. He was kind of the spark that ignited everything. He's always going to probably be in that upper-echelon of all-time Oklahoma Sooners."
Now Mayfield is in Carolina, looking to spark an offense with a new offensive coordinator in Ben McAdoo. Oklahoma fans have seen what Mayfield can do, and it's one of the reasons they're turning their attention to the Panthers this season.
"He's such a great competitor," Spray said. "That's the comment I get from everybody when I bring his name up."
On the Wednesday before Mayfield was set to suit up as a Panther and face his former team, he fielded questions about the magnitude of starting the season against the Browns.
Mayfield answered with a business-like approach, maintaining a serious demeanor he has kept since arriving at Carolina. But when asked about the support he's felt in Charlotte from Oklahoma fans, a smile broke out across his face.
"That's the fanbase – it's always been family," he said. "I've always felt the love from them, and it's continued to be that way."
View photos of Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield at training camp and in preseason games at Washington, New England and against Buffalo.