Justin Fields, hurting and doubted, ‘was born for this stage’


JUSTIN FIELDS STEPS into an injury tent like Clark Kent entering a phone booth.

On the outside, he’s a mild-mannered quarterback, not much of a talker. At heart, he’s still that small-town kid from the Atlanta suburbs who desperately wanted to stay close to home and play for Georgia and who nearly packed his bags and left Ohio State a few days after he arrived on campus because he was homesick.

Like Clark Kent, Fields isn’t exactly in disguise before he turns into Superman. He’s just … overlooked. Yeah, he was ESPN’s top recruit in 2018, but he often played second fiddle to Trevor Lawrence, the lanky QB with the flowing locks from just up I-75 who topped other recruiting boards and went on to win it all as a true freshman while Fields languished as a backup. Fields once figured to be the QB of the future at Georgia, but that never materialized, as the Bulldogs bet on Jake Fromm instead. Even at Ohio State, where Fields has often approached perfection, he’s always toiled in the background on the national stage, first behind Lawrence and Joe Burrow, and now, a distinct underdog to Mac Jones and Alabama, when the Tide and Buckeyes meet Monday in the College Football Playoff National Championship

Fields’ greatness is there for all to see, and yet, it’s only in those flashes when he does something seemingly impossible that we all recognize a superhero.

That’s what happened after he stepped out of the medical tent on Ohio State’s sideline late in the second quarter of the Buckeyes’ Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Clemson on Jan. 1.

Fields had taken a brutal shot to the ribs from Tigers linebacker James Skalski. No flag had been thrown, but replay deemed it targeting. Fields limped into the tent, the Buckeyes ran a play, and then Superman showed up.

Fields took the next snap, ran a sprint to his right, found Chris Olave on a comeback to the pylon, and zip — a heat-seeking missile into Olave’s hands for a touchdown. It was a dagger, and Clemson never recovered.

It wasn’t the first time this happened. Go back a year to Ohio State’s 2019 win over Michigan. Under pressure, an offensive lineman was pushed back into Fields, rolling up onto the QB’s leg. Immediately it was clear that Fields’ knee was throbbing.

“He comes out of that tent, and what did he do?” Fields’ former Ohio State QB coach Mike Yurcich said, as if he’s about to reveal some great secret. “He throws one of the best passes I’ve ever seen.”

Same play, really. Just in the other direction. Pressure comes, Fields rolls out to the left sideline, stops, squares up, delivers a bullet 40 yards downfield to Garrett Wilson in the back of the end zone, a cherry on top of a dominant win in his first start against the Buckeyes’ archrival.

So, that’s the key for Alabama, right? Just don’t send Fields into that tent, because then he puts on a cape.

Yurcich laughed.

“That might be it,” he said.

No, the real insight from those plays, a pair of perfect throws from a QB in obvious pain, is the story they tell about what drives Fields.

From a frustrating first season to injuries in some of his biggest games, Fields is the rare elite talent whose legacy is focused on overcoming setbacks rather than dominating from the outset. It suits him. Getting knocked down has offered him the opportunity to rise up.

“There’s a chip [on his shoulder] there,” Yurcich said. “No question.”

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RIGHT NOW, he’s on the brink of a championship, fresh off one of the most remarkable postseason performances in the storied history of Buckeyes football. But getting here was anything but certain. It wasn’t until his first trip into the end zone with Ohio State, he said, that things felt right.

Fields knew before he enrolled at Georgia that the Bulldogs already had a starting QB. Fromm had come within a few plays of winning a title as a true freshman a year earlier, and Fields faced an uphill battle to unseat the incumbent. Turns out, there was no battle. Fields was pigeonholed into a small, niche role for Georgia, running what amounted to a simplified wildcat offense that only managed to ramp up the talk that his career would never match the recruiting hype.

“I remember watching [TV] when he transferred to Ohio State,” Fields’ high school coach, Matt Dickman, said. “Everyone on the show said he was going to struggle. I wanted to be on the show to say, ‘No, he won’t.'”

Fields committed to Ohio State before ever setting foot on campus. He liked head coach Ryan Day. There was instantly trust, something that told him if he followed Day, things would work out.

“From day one, it was genuine,” Fields said. “Everyone knows he’s a great offensive-minded coach, and he was going to make me a better player. That’s all I was really worried about.”

But when he got to Ohio State, it wasn’t home. Fields didn’t know anyone. He was “a shy guy,” as Olave said, and the strange combination of expectations and uncertainty made him uncomfortable. At one point, a few days after getting to campus, Fields’ father recalled, his homesick son called and asked to come back to Georgia.

“I’ll take the [media] hit,” Fields told him.

Pablo Fields told his son to stick it out a little longer. A day later, a few of the guys from the team dropped by his dorm room and invited him to play basketball. Gradually, Ohio State started to feel like home.

Still, by the time he walked out onto the field for the Buckeyes’ 2019 opener against Florida Atlantic, it had been nearly three years since he started a football game.

His first touchdown in a Buckeyes uniform was a turning point.

FAU ran an odd set. Ohio State called a run-pass option. Tailback J.K. Dobbins broke to his right, taking defenders with him. Fields read the defensive end and kept the ball, cutting up the middle behind his center and then toward the left sideline.

“Everyone on the team was like, ‘Sheesh, he can really move!'” offensive lineman Wyatt Davis recalled.

Fields took the carry 51 yards for the touchdown.

“I knew it was going to work out when I scored that touchdown,” Fields said.

Pablo Fields said he’s not sure why that play mattered so much to his son. Those first few months at Ohio State were “uncomfortable,” and perhaps just getting back on the field and playing a game after so much time was all it took to feel at home. Regardless, the setbacks proved to be a blessing.

“I believe the road to success is paved with adversity,” Pablo Fields said. “The adversity we went through with having to transfer has definitely made him a better man and a better football player.”

Dickman had recorded the game, and rewatched it later. He was so enthralled by the play, he pulled out a couple sheets of paper and started scribbling, drawing up the formation. Later, he got Fields to sign it.

“And we run the play now in high school,” Dickman said.

IF FIELDS’ FIRST game at Ohio State sparked his emergence, it was the way the season ended that drove him to this moment.

The Buckeyes had title hopes, and Fields had been exceptional, finishing third in the Heisman voting. He’d led Ohio State to a Big Ten title on a bum knee, setting up a showdown in the College Football Playoff against Lawrence, the Clemson QB who’d played the part of friend, foil, rival and measuring stick for years.

Fields and Lawrence grew up less than an hour apart in Georgia, trained with the same private QB coach in high school and worked out together occasionally. Both had hovered near the top of every recruiting list. But while Lawrence enjoyed a nearly flawless high school career, winning a state title at Cartersville before becoming the face of college football by leading Clemson to a national championship win over Alabama as a true freshman, Fields’ journey was rockier. An injury cost him his senior season at Harrison High in Kennesaw. The lost year at Georgia only further shifted Fields to the back of the college football stage, while Lawrence and Burrow, the Ohio State transfer, soaked up the spotlight.

Fields and Ohio State jumped out to a 16-0 lead against Lawrence and Clemson in last year’s Fiesta Bowl. Fields was sharp. But Lawrence found his groove, and by halftime, Clemson had closed the gap to two points. Two more touchdown passes from Lawrence in the second half gave the Tigers a slim 29-23 edge, and Fields led his offense onto the field with 1:49 to play, needing a TD.

Instead, the game ended with an interception in the end zone — just the third pick of the season for Fields.

It reminded Dickman of a game from Fields’ high school days. They’d played North Cobb in a September showdown. Fields was exceptional, but a strip sack led to points on the other end, and Harrison lost 45-42. After the game, Fields was frustrated and took the blame.

“That’s nice of you to say,” Dickman told Fields, “but this was a team loss.”

Fields never quite saw things that way, and after Ohio State fell to Clemson last season, the game ending on his errant throw, he again carried the burden.

“He’s very critical of himself when he doesn’t play well,” Dickman said, “but it means he’s going to work all that much harder.”

The road to a rematch with Lawrence was winding. For more than a month, Ohio State’s season was in limbo, as the Big Ten wrestled with the notion of playing through a pandemic. In his team’s Nov. 21 showdown with Indiana, he struggled a bit — forcing a few throws, offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said — but the Buckeyes still won, with 607 yards of offense to boot. With Day and three starting O-linemen sidelined against Michigan State on Dec. 5 due to COVID-19 concerns, Fields was pedestrian. But chalk that up to the playcalling, said Wilson, who ran the offense in Day’s absence.

“We had three linemen out,” Wilson said, “and he wasn’t getting hurt on my watch.”

Then came the Big Ten title game against Northwestern on Dec. 19, with another set of stars, including Olave, sidelined due to virus protocols. Fields finished with just 114 yards passing and two interceptions.

“A lot of people talking poorly about him as a quarterback; that bothered him,” Day said of Fields’ regular-season missteps.

The coach pulled Fields aside.

“Go play good in this game [against Clemson],” Day told him, “and nobody’s going to remember what you did in the Big Ten championship. They’ll remember this one, and they’ll remember it for a long time.”

Against Clemson, Fields was exceptional. He finished with as many touchdown throws (six) as incompletions, and as he grimaced in pain, sitting down at the podium for a postgame Zoom, he made sure the world understood nothing would keep him from earning redemption.

“Everybody doubting us, it just pushed us a little more,” Fields said after Ohio State routed Clemson in the Sugar Bowl 49-28 on Jan. 1. “I prepared for this game like I’ve never prepared for a game before. I think that showed on the field.”

KEVIN WILSON WAS gushing about his QB.

“I can pull up the tape,” he said for anyone who might doubt him.

Fields is perhaps the best QB he’s ever coached — and there have been some good ones — and he wanted to explain why.

There’s the big arm, and the elite speed, and the size and the football IQ — all those qualities necessary to be truly great at the position, but Wilson pointed out the little bit extra that makes Fields special.

“We’ll be practicing, and he’ll pull it and run,” Wilson says, “and 40 yards down the field, everyone else is stopped, and he’s still running.”

While Wilson is convinced of Fields’ greatness, watching him play, it’s impossible not to think there’s more to be discovered.

“It’s scary,” Wilson said, “because I think he’s just learning how to really be good.”

Wilson compares him favorably to Russell Wilson, only bigger and stronger. But the Seattle Seahawks QB has got that “it factor” that every coach can spot but never quite articulate. Fields has it, too, but he’s still young, just 22 starts into his college career. He’s been imbued with immense power, and he’s only now learning how to use it.

“Justin’s got a lot of talent,” Kevin Wilson said, “but he’s got some things that make him special.”

And even after he showed some of it against Clemson, heading into the title game, Fields is once again being doubted.

That hit against Clemson has been a topic all week, and while Ohio State has been conservative in sharing any medical information, Fields has insisted he’ll be ready to go.

Still, he’s again being viewed as an underdog. If there’s been anything close to a consistent narrative about this roller coaster of a college football season, it’s that Alabama is great, its offense unstoppable and to beat the Tide would require something approaching a miracle. The college football world isn’t quite ready to anoint Fields a miracle worker.

He’s also new to this. The air’s thinner on the mountaintop, and Fields is just getting his first breaths. Fields has always carried the weight for his team’s ups and downs, and the burden of leading Ohio State to a national championship is his biggest yet.

As ephemeral as that “it factor” may be, perhaps Yurcich, Fields’ former QB coach, best described it. He called it “self-perception,” the way the great ones always know where they’re going, even when the rest of the world doubts them. They’ve seen a vision of their future, not just in some daydream, but in vivid colors, again and again. They’ve played it out in their minds — each snap, each step, each throw. It sounds like a redemption story, but Yurcich sees it more as a realignment, working to match the vision and reality.

“Some guys are shocked by the moment because they never perceived themselves being in a national championship game, they never really played it out in their head,” Yurcich said. “Some guys have the self-perception to where they’ve rehearsed this before. He’s rehearsed this. That’s who Justin is. He has self-perception accuracy.”

Fields’ father puts it more succinctly: “He was born for this stage.”

So here’s Justin Fields, doubted and hurting, as far up the mountain as he’s ever climbed, already aware of each jagged edge but ready to stake his claim.

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