The shock of Thursday night faded on Friday into something that felt almost like fate.
Ohio State’s Justin Fields, the latest candidate to snap the Bears’ 71-year quarterback drought, sat down at Halas Hall on Friday and explained whom he wants to pattern his game after: Russell Wilson. Yes, the same Seahawks star that the Bears tried — and failed — to trade for in March.
The franchise that angered its fans by once touting Andy Dalton as “QB1” on Twitter announced that Fields will wear — you guessed it — No. 1. And general manager Ryan Pace, who might never live down passing on Patrick Mahomes four years ago, talked openly of putting Fields on the same apprenticeship program that the Chiefs set up for their rookie in 2017.
Soon, the pressure will start: for the 22-year-old Fields to justify his draft selection and the haul the Bears had to trade to move up to No. 11. To win a starting spot –and to save the careers of Pace and head coach Matt Nagy, who need to show progress in 2021.
Wearing a crimson suit that matched his old Ohio State jersey, the soft-spoken Fields was clear on Friday: bring it on.
“I don’t think there’s pressure at all on me because I expect myself to be a franchise quarterback … and one day, hopefully, a top-five quarterback in this league,” Fields said. “That’s what I’m going out to do. I’m going to work every day to reach my goal and reach new heights.”
He’s done it before.
Matt Dickmann, the former football coach at Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Georgia, first saw Fields play when the quarterback was in seventh grade. It was on a highlight film sent by Pablo Fields, whose son was dominating a junior league.
“An impressive little video,” Dickmann said. “But you just never know. You see a lot of kids and you don’t know what their work ethic is like, what they’re going to be like academically.”
Academics? Fields had a 4.0 grade-point average by the time he graduated Harrison, DIckmann said. Work ethic? As a junior, Fields did a 285-pound clean-and-jerk over his head. Dickmann banned him from trying such a heavy weight again.
Athleticism? Fields played four sports growing up and was a standout shortstop. Harrison put in a read-option offense for Fields to take advantage of his speed; on the first power read play they called, he ran for a 60-yard touchdown.
As a sophomore, Fields approached Ron Veal, his personal quarterbacks coach since sixth grade, with one request.
“He came to me and he said, “I want to be a good quarterback,'” said Veal, a former University of Arizona quarterback. “And then he said, ‘Nah, I want to be a great quarterback.'”
They’d meet on the Harrison football field at 7 a.m. When it was too dark, the school would turn the field lights on. Veal would run Fields through his high school team’s route tree, then ball fakes, rollouts and sprint-outs.
“We’d go over it until he felt like he got it,” Veal said.
At the end of the hour, Fields would walk off the field and go to class.
By the end of his junior year, Fields was rated by most recruiting services the No. 2 high school prospect in America — but not the best in suburban Atlanta. He wasn’t even the highest-rated quarterback coached by Veal.
Trevor Lawrence, the future Clemson star and the Jaguars’ No. 1 pick Thursday night, lived about 25 minutes away in Cartersville. He was the nation’s top prospect.
Lawrence began private training sessions with Veal in seventh grade. Lawrence and Fields didn’t meet until high school, though, and didn’t train together until just before they headed off to college. In 2017, they both attended Elite 11, a camp and competition for the best high school players in America. Thirteen of the last 14 quarterbacks to win the Heisman Trophy are alumni of the event.
Fields — not Lawrence — was named camp MVP.
“If he’s No. 2 at something, he’s gonna strive to be No. 1,” Dickmann said.
Veal prefers to think of the two as competitive people, as opposed to rivals.
“I think [Lawrence] and me are used to this, really,” Fields said. “We’ve been at it for so long now … I think me and him, of course, are both great quarterbacks and I think we love this game. I think we both want to be great. So I’m not really saying that I’m necessarily trying to be better than him in this particular area.”
Fields isn’t the type to explain his motivation.
“He kinda burns hot on the inside, but you can’t always see it …” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “His competitive fire gets lit quickly.”
Half of Fields’ college losses came to Lawrence. Clemson beat the Buckeyes in the 2019 semifinal before Ohio State got its revenge in this year’s semis. On New Year’s Day, Fields outplayed Lawrence. Despite taking a shot to the rib cage in the second quarter that led to a Clemson ejection, Fields went 22-for-28 for 385 yards and a whopping six touchdowns.
Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said Fields has the physicality of a linebacker or safety, but with the intellect and calmness of a quarterback.
“His greatest strength is his mind,” he said.
On a toughness scale of 1-10, Bears general manager Ryan Pace gave Fields an 11.
“You just love that about him,” Pace said. “Oh, and then by the way, he runs a 4.44 [40-yard dash].”
If the Fields-Lawrence rivalry extends into the NFL, it will have to be from afar. The two teams won’t play often.
“I’m going to be looking at everybody to see how they did — and not just Trevor,” Fields said. “It’s just not a one-on-one thing.”
The defining characteristics of Fields’ high school and college career — hard work and toughness — made what happened this offseason all that much more bizarre. In late March, ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said he heard from teams questioning Fields’ work ethic. Some were left to wonder if those criticisms were rooted in racial stereotypes.
Orlovsky later apologized, both publicly and privately to Fields. He said that he later talked to teams that vouched for Fields’ work ethic.
The quarterback was and is, frustrated by the criticism.
“I really can’t do anything about it,” Fields said. “There were some things that, of course, weren’t true.”
Fields has been through controversy before. He spent his freshman year at Georgia before transferring to Ohio State. He was ruled immediately eligible after another Bulldogs athlete was caught using a racial slur while cheering for Fields at a football game. The transfer stirred emotions from two of college football’s most passionate fan bases.
In another odd turn — as if some team was trying to get Fields to fall in the draft — word leaked earlier this week that he told teams he suffered from epilepsy. Fields was diagnosed in ninth grade after he had a seizure and woke up in an ambulance. He said he’s been taking four pills per night to manage it ever since.
“I’m not going to try to hide it,” Fields said. “It’s who I am.”
It’s ironic: Fields might have been the No. 2 overall pick — and not so nitpicked — had he not pushed so hard to play a college football season. In August, he started an online petition to get the Big Ten to reinstate football after the conference decided to postpone the sport because of the coronavirus.
Fields took initiative because of his giant social media presence — he has more than a quarter-million Twitter followers. His beloved French bulldog, Uno, has more than 40,000 Instagram followers.
“Seeing the amount of work my teammates put in in the offseason, me knowing how much they wanted to get back in that position, to be able to play Clemson again …” he said. “I was going to do everything that I could to help get our season back.”
The push was successful. He got his rematch — but after a hiccup. He played one of the worst games of his career, going 18-for-30 for 300 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions against Indiana. The Buckeyes eked out a seven-point win.
“I think there were a few plays in that game where I was just trying to be Superman,” he said.
Fields doesn’t have to be Superman. Or Lawrence. Or Wilson. Or Sid Luckman.
“Just be Justin,” said Veal, the quarterbacks coach. “Allow the game to come to him. Learn to be a pro. Keep himself centered and grounded in his thoughts and his beliefs. And continue to work.”