When he was 4 years old, one of college football’s best current passers upstaged his parents’ wedding by deciding in the middle of the reverend’s prayer to throw the small pillow he’d been made to carry.
"Hey," Patrick Mahomes II hissed to his younger cousin. "Catch."
This was not unforeseen. For years, he’d preferred throwing candy to eating it, so his parents ensured the pillow didn’t bear rings. But when his cousin dropped the toss, he huffed away, frustrated no one would play.
He rarely had that problem again, because he spent every summer following his father, Pat Mahomes, around one of the six clubhouses he played in across an 11-year Major League Baseball career.
Pat raised his son in the outfield playing catch, sometimes with his godfather, LaTroy Hawkins. At 5, Patrick shagged his first fly ball when Robin Ventura sent one into the Yankee Stadium outfield before the Subway Series. By 6, he was taking grounders at shortstop with Alex Rodriguez in Texas.
Baseball seemed preordained. And so when a 17-year-old Patrick was driving home from visiting the University of Texas, Pat asked his son why he was still messing around with football. It could only increase his injury risk, Pat said, which might scare teams in the MLB draft.
"If I was a betting man," Pat said, "I wouldn’t have laid a penny on him playing college football."
Four years later, the Texas Tech junior is arguably the most exciting college quarterback not named Lamar Jackson. Among power-conference players, the projected first-round NFL draft pick leads the nation in passer rating and passing yards per game. But even after leading the NCAA in total offense last season, he knows there’s still a lot of work to do. After he turned down more than a million dollars to pursue a sport he once almost quit, he’s left trying to adapt the tools he learned in baseball to make him a better quarterback — and to prove that his success isn’t the result of the system he’s in.
That work begins by proving he’s more than the latest shiny stat sheet to come off the TTU assembly line. Many college football fans dismiss Mahomes’s numbers, analysts said, because they’re used to Texas Tech quarterbacks posting gaudy totals.
"Any [Air Raid] offense where you’re throwing the ball 50 to 60 times a game to guys who are single-covered in space, your numbers are inflated," said Ian Boyd, a college football writer who has extensively analyzed Mahomes’s game. "But not everyone can go out there and do what he’s doing. Mahomes is much more talented than [a system quarterback]."
The Whitehouse, Texas, native is bigger than most Air Raid signal-callers at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds — about the size of Andrew Luck — yet remains quick enough to force defenses into respecting his scrambling ability. From 2008 to 2013, Texas Tech quarterbacks combined to rush for 5 yards, including yardage lost on sacks. In 2015, his first full season as the starter, Mahomes ran for 456.
While his legs help him avoid the pass rush and extend plays, Mahomes’s arm provides much of his success. It’s one of the strongest arms Don Williams has seen in 30 years of covering Texas Tech for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. He’s up there, Williams said, with the mid-’80s redheaded gunslinger Billy Joe Tolliver, who it was said could throw a football through a car wash without it getting wet.
Mahomes, who throws 65 yards from his knees and 85 yards standing, can overcome poor mechanics with his arm. "Not too many cats on the planet can do that," said Kliff Kingsbury, head coach of the 2–1 Red Raiders.
He routinely completes passes into tight coverage despite throwing across his body or off his back foot. His season highlights look like they were generated while playing Madden on Rookie difficulty. His arm is so strong that once, while being flushed out of the pocket and sensing an imminent hit, he flicked the ball away only to overthrow a receiver 55 yards downfield.
The busted-throttle style can also be his downfall. For every video clip of Mahomes heaving an impossibly long touchdown, there’s less widely circulated game film of a similar play ending in an incompletion or worse.
Last season, he threw 15 interceptions, tied for the third most in the FBS. His completion percentage of 63.5 was about six points lower than Kingsbury wanted. Mahomes went into the huddle planning to escape the pocket and said he sometimes looked for big plays that weren’t there.
"He makes so many more stupid throws than your average quarterback does," Boyd said, "but his hit rate on them is extremely high. That’s kind of a difficult thing to parse."
Mahomes wasn’t even supposed to be in position to throw bad interceptions. He was better at baseball and basketball, his father and godfather said. Patrick never specifically trained for arm strength, but it came to him from daily long toss in the outfield.
And when he played football, he wasn’t supposed to play quarterback. He had in ninth grade, but the high school coaches moved him to safety, where he excelled because of his athleticism. He didn’t enjoy it, though, and before his junior year he told his mom he didn’t want to play the game anymore.
"He thought about quitting all summer," his mother, Randi Mahomes, said. "I told him that I had quit some things too in high school, and sometimes I still beat myself up for that."
He faced another "grown-man decision," as Hawkins called it. After his parents divorced when he was young, he’d made a lot of them. Living with his mom, he took on more chores. Sometimes he declined friends’ invitations to hang out because he needed to watch his two younger siblings. In the seventh grade, he chose to get himself baptized; he wanted, his mom said, "to become a man in church." In 2014, the Arizona Diamondbacks called between the first and second rounds of the MLB draft and offered seven figures. The Detroit Tigers drafted him in the 37th round. Mahomes turned down both for Texas Tech.
After the split he’d spent his summers with his dad, and while Patrick learned how to be a professional athlete while sitting in the dugout, Pat and Hawkins tried to teach the boy how to be a man. They showed "Lil Pat" how to work out, told him not to show anybody up. When Patrick cried after losses in his own games as a kid, Pat saw himself in his son and told him softly to not put so much pressure on himself.
Together, the men stoked Lil Pat’s smoldering competitiveness with trash talk. He played better with stakes. He wasn’t fast, but displayed "game speed" in every sport he played. He enjoyed quieting crowds more than making them roar. The first time he dunked in a game, it was on somebody.
As he struggled with whether to play football his junior year, his mother asked him if he could really imagine himself cheering from the stands. He couldn’t, so he stayed on the team. The QB from the season before had graduated, and Mahomes ended up escaping another season in the secondary, competing with his best friend for the starting quarterback job. But by Week 3, he’d won it. He fell back in love with football. A year later, Kingsbury was in the stands to watch him.
Mahomes’s raw talent reminded Texas Tech’s new head coach of a QB he had coached before, a fiery former baseball player with a helluva arm who could also make plays with his feet. As the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M, Kingsbury had helped Johnny Manziel become the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
Johnny was a little faster than Mahomes, more of a runner, Kingsbury said. But their similarities made him confident enough in the three-star recruit that Mahomes was the only quarterback Texas Tech signed in the 2014 class. That initial trust earned Mahomes’s loyalty, which paid off for Tech when Notre Dame and LSU came calling late.
As the awards and attention piled up during his senior year, Mahomes saw a brighter future on the gridiron than on the diamond. He talked to Hawkins about how to appreciate the taste of fame without letting it get to him. Hawkins’s advice went something like his voicemail: "You’ve reached LaTroy’s phone. If you’re calling about money, hang up."
His high school athletic department asked Mahomes to do a photo shoot for some posters. There, he flashed the first of the trademark right-arm flexes that he now breaks out after every touchdown. In the only game Kingsbury saw Mahomes play at Whitehouse (Texas) High School, against East Texas rival Carthage, the QB flexed a career-high seven times. Kingsbury left at halftime.
"I said, ‘We’re good,’" Kingsbury remembered. "He had a bunch of tools that I thought, if we could ever refine ’em, he could be something special."
Mahomes quit the Texas Tech baseball team this spring after appearing in three games last season, and he spent a lot of his first offseason ever away from baseball in a dark room in the back half of Texas Tech’s football complex. It’s near Kingsbury’s office and can fit about four players. There are two computers and a poster of Jones AT&T Stadium, and green turf covers the entire floor. There, Mahomes strapped on a virtual reality headset and held a football as he mimicked plays, reviewing mechanics and progressions with his body.
"I’m really working on dropping back, taking those three steps," Mahomes said. "It’s something that’s taken a lot of repetition to do because in high school I didn’t take great drops. My first year here, I kind of shuffled back."
Though he spends hours each week preparing to execute the game plan — Kingsbury trusts him enough that pre-snap audibles have been at his discretion since the moment he first set foot on the field — Mahomes still thrives on chaos. He’s still turning broken plays into broken records. He’s currently on pace to be the first college player ever to pass for 5,000 yards, run for 500, and total 50 touchdowns in a season.
Last season, he narrowly missed the mark (by 347 passing yards, 44 rushing yards, and four touchdowns) despite spraining his MCL in Week 4 against TCU. He’d gritted through pain before, playing senior year football, basketball, and baseball on a broken foot. After the sprain, Mahomes impressed Kingsbury by lugging his right leg around for the rest of the season, strapped into the brace he wears still.
"The only thing that can stop him is injury," Boyd said. "The [level of competition] might get better, but his defense is playing so bad right now, and other Big 12 offenses go so fast. He’s going to have to throw 40 to 60 passes per game. It’s crazy, but they’re putting it all on him. That’s almost a lock."
When he’s not using VR, Mahomes spends half-a-dozen hours per week reviewing film on his laptop and iPad. He went to his first football camp this summer, the Manning Passing Academy, and learned from Peyton Manning that he has to watch as much film on himself as he watches on the defense.
He sees what he wants to improve: pocket presence, read progression, shifting the defense with his eyes, managing the game. He knows not every throw needs to be a bomb. According to the NFL QB rating formula, he’s a perfect 158.3 on play-action dropback passes this season.
By the time he sets foot on real stadium turf each week, he’s visualized the throws he’ll make that day. His routine never alters: After stretching and putting the sleeves on his right arm and left leg, he walks to the 30-yard line and throws a football at the goal post until he hits it.
"I’m a baseball player," Mahomes said. "I’ve always been a baseball player, so I really keep everything the same on game day."
The most valuable lesson he learned from baseball is one his coaches say can’t be taught. In those clubhouses, he watched men fail at their jobs every day. He came to understand that success depended on not remembering the last play. That mind-set is the same one that allows him to roll out, see a receiver deep, and, whether he’s just thrown a touchdown or interception, throw the ball again.
Nowhere was that ability more evident than on the first two full series of his college career. Trailing at Oklahoma State by 10 in the fourth quarter in 2014, sophomore QB Davis Webb hurt his shoulder, so Kingsbury sent in his true freshman quarterback.
As Mahomes dropped back to throw, a defensive lineman swatted the ball out of his hands. Mahomes reached for the ball, scooped it up, and, barely looking, flung it out to the flat. His first career pass was intercepted.
When Texas Tech got the ball back, he marched the Red Raiders down to the Oklahoma State goal line. His first pass since the interception, a 4-yard corner route to receiver Jakeem Grant, led to his first college flex.
"That play was when it hit me: This kid’s got some real stuff about him," Kingsbury said. "He was poised, we were behind. He threw an incredible corner route. He’s never looked back."
Mahomes went on to win the job from Webb (who’s since transferred to Cal), become one of the nation’s best passers, and leave behind the game that shaped him.
Now, what he remembers from the throw that launched his career is coming to the line, identifying man coverage, knowing Grant would be open, lofting the ball toward the back left pylon, and hearing the stadium grow quiet.
"Jakeem is a speedster," Mahomes said. "I knew he could break ’em off."
Then, channeling the little boy throwing the pillow from the altar, he added: "So I put it up and just said, ‘Hey, catch.’"