January 25, 2018, published on BleacherReport.com
One morning in late December 2017, Justin Fields wakes up, pulls up a chair in his family’s home in Kennesaw, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, and reflects on all that happened the day before. On that red-letter day, the 18-year-old quarterback signed with the University of Georgia, becoming the first No. 1 overall prospect to pick the Bulldogs in the 13 years that ESPN has ranked prospects.
A red Georgia flag waves on the front lawn in the 52-degree chill. His dog, Royce, a little black and white Shih Tzu with an endearing overbite, is tugging at Fields’ calf for attention. He’s appropriately dressed in a mini red Bulldogs shirt.
But outside his home, outside Kennesaw, few can understand why the 6’3″, 225-pound quarterback with the size, athleticism, arm strength, lights-out quickness and razor-sharp IQ (he also has a 3.9 GPA) would choose Georgia. The program already has a true freshman in Jake Fromm, who led the Bulldogs to the SEC championship and national championship game.
“It’s shocking,” says Barton Simmons, director of scouting for 247Sports. It’s shocking because Simmons says Fields could have had a much better chance of starting from day one at Florida under Dan Mullen, Texas A&M under Jimbo Fisher or even Florida State under Willie Taggart.
“For him to turn all that down,” Simmons says, “is as confident, and I guess I’d say maybe as gutsy, of a decision as I remember seeing at the QB position.”
Maybe to outsiders. But to Fields? The decision was as natural as a trip to the Waffle House (he goes after every game and orders a chocolate-chip waffle). It just felt right.
“I’m not scared of competition,” Fields says. “Competition can only make you better. I don’t really want anything given to me.”
He’s always had to fight for position.
BCS schools weren’t knocking on his door at 13. Or 14 or 15 or 16. One night, early in his sophomore year, Fields felt so low and alone he shut the door to his room and slammed a football as hard as he could against his bed. “Why don’t I have any offers?” he screamed. He just wanted one. He probably would have kissed the turf if nearby Mercer had offered.
“Just be ready,” Ron Veal, his QB coach since sixth grade, who also coaches Clemson signee and 5-star recruit Trevor Lawrence, told him. “It’s going to happen.”
Sure enough, within the span of a year-and-a-half, seemingly every school in America came calling. “I’ve coached smart quarterbacks. I’ve coached quarterbacks that are very athletic. I’ve coached quarterbacks with great arms. He has all those things in one,” says Matt Dickmann, his coach at Harrison, who has 31 years of experience.
“That’s what separates him from most people in America: He checks all the boxes,” Dickmann says. “He doesn’t have a box that’s not checked.”
Even as Fields’ Twitter following surpasses 36,000, he still hustles like a second-stringer on the verge of getting cut.
He was disappointed after running a 4.51 40-yard dash at The Opening at the Nike Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. Even though his time beat the NFL combine marks of Deshaun Watson and Joshua Dobbs, both of whom are smaller than him, Fields thought he could have run a 4.4.
Fields also excels in baseball but isn’t planning on pursuing the pros, even though it’s likely he would have been drafted had he played his senior year, according to his father, Ivant “Pablo” Fields. “I just don’t think I’ll be great at something I don’t love,” Justin says.
Fields can’t stomach losing to anyone. As a toddler, he’d cry (bawl, really) when Ivant beat him at putting on his seatbelt. Fields would shimmy his shoulders and motion for a do-over. He won’t let his two little sisters surpass him, either. He smacks down 11-year-old Jessica’s shot in hoops with such force it’s as if her mere attempt insulted him.
Once, on a family trip to Costa Rica, his sister Jaiden flawlessly zip-lined off a cliff, spreading her arms like Superman. Fields is terrified of heights. Then 10, he took the plunge anyway and sailed through the air with his arms out wide like his sister’s.
The only time Fields takes a break is when he sleeps, but even then he’s moving (Jessica says he snores so loudly it’s like an earthquake).
How can he rest? Every day he’s bombarded by questions about Fromm: What if you don’t start? What if you sit for a year or two? Are you sure you made the right decision? Fields shakes his head. He mentions The Opening. For the entire month of June leading up to the event, he had told his dad he was going to win MVP. Ivant, who played linebacker at Eastern Kentucky, knew his son was really, really good. But MVP? That’s a long shot.
Fields was convinced. He carefully combed through each page of the playbook The Opening provided like it was scripture. And when the other players were laughing on the way to the field, he put on his white Beats headphones, bumped Migos and Lil Uzi Vert and didn’t say a word.
He won MVP, leading his team, Mach Speed, to the championship, throwing five touchdown passes and no interceptions.
“Dad, you know me,” Fields says. “But you don’t know how hard I compete when the competition is really hard.”
“At The Opening,” he says, “I saw a part of myself I hadn’t seen before. When I have to compete, I take everything to another level.”
“PUT FROSTY IN! PUT FROSTY IN! PUT FROSTY IN!”
The student section at Harrison High couldn’t stomach one more minute of Justin Fields. Well, he wasn’t Justin Fields back then; he was just Justin, a 6’1″ sophomore with dreams bigger than his body, a lanky kid whose hands trembled when he gripped the ball.
He certainly wasn’t Harrison Frost, the crowd favorite, who had encyclopedic knowledge of offenses. (Frost’s grandfather, Ken Hockman, was a successful high school football coach in Ohio and Kentucky. Frost’s cousin, Bailey Hockman, is a quarterback at Florida State.)
“Dang,” Fields thought to himself as he left the field, his confidence shattering into tiny pieces. “I was horrible.” He wanted to erase that moment. And the one that started the season: a wounded duck thrown into the ground nowhere near the receiver. He doesn’t remember completing a pass that game.
Fields had flown past the competition on the freshman team. But joining varsity the following year? That was a different beast—and it was devouring him. “You can’t drop off like this,” he told himself as he began to split time with Frost.
Fields never had to do that before. He was the quickest, strongest, most talented player on any team he’s played on, in baseball, basketball and track as well.
As a baby, he’d throw a ball up the stairs, let it come down and catch it, over and over, for hours. “Ball! Ball! Ball!” he’d scream in delight. He held his own as a five-year-old in the Metro Atlanta Youth Football League. He was solid, never rattled, so his dad took to calling him J-Rock.
He flourished on the diamond too, catching and throwing better than his peers. But he got cut from the prestigious baseball team, the East Cobb Astros, as a 13-year-old trying out for the 14-under team. He simply didn’t pass the eye test. “I’m not getting cut from another team,” he told his dad. “I’m not going through that embarrassment again.”
Fields stood 5’9″, 175 pounds as a freshman. “The talent was there. He just didn’t have the growth spurt,” Veal says.
Fields wasn’t deterred, though. “He wouldn’t let another kid outwork him,” Veal says.
By the fourth game of his sophomore season, Fields began to show promise. He bulked up to 185 pounds. He relaxed a bit. And even when uncertain of a read, he could take off running and make plays with his legs. Colleges began to take notice, though Fields broke the middle finger on his throwing hand in the eighth game, ending his season.
He teared up when he got his first offer from North Carolina. More trickled in. His parents wanted him to go to a school like Duke, Vanderbilt, Harvard, Princeton or Northwestern due to their sterling academic reputations.
Ivant took his son to a Duke game against Miami. “Dad,” Fields said, scrolling through his phone. “This stadium only holds 39,000 people.”
Ivant wasn’t surprised by that reaction. His son has always craved more. But he still had a lot to prove.
Nothing prepared Fields for the type of pain that was coming.
Fields’ half-sister, Kennedy, used to come over to Fields’ home every weekend when the two were kids, staying in Fields’ room. He had two beds. Kennedy was a warm person. She loved sports, especially basketball. She also loved Justin Bieber, tacking a giant poster of him on her wall. The pair was not as close as the years wore on, with Kennedy coming over much less often. Still, Kennedy was family.
So it was a shock when Kennedy, who Ivant said had epilepsy, died suddenly from a seizure. She was 21.
Fields, heading into his junior year, found out while at Clemson’s camp. He was supposed to continue on the camp circuit. Instead, he broke down crying and headed home.
“Having that in the back of your mind, you just can’t be the same person as you were before,” Fields says. “I learned not to take your family members for granted. Every time you get to spend with them, do it, because you never know the last time you’ll have with them.”
Ivant thinks his son is able to adapt to any situation on the field because of his strong family ties. Fields is close to both his biological mother, Gina Tobey, and his stepmother, JoAnn Fields.
All stressed accountability. When Fields got a “C” in a class, Ivant, a police officer at Harrison who is retired from the Atlanta Police Department, made Fields shave his head and wear extra-small gray sweatpants from Walmart and old-school velcro tennis shoes. “The kind that old people walk in,” Ivant says, laughing.
The kids teased Fields for the next month. He was so distraught he ran away one afternoon, maybe two miles out. But two hours later, he realized the punishment was proof his family had his back. They wanted him to succeed.
They were there before there were 30 kids lined up after Harrison’s games, hoping for Fields’ autograph. Ivant was the one who sent his game film to every Division I school in America, believing in him even though only five colleges wrote back at first.
Fields often recites a Bible verse his dad ingrained in him, summarized as “Pride comes before the fall.” He knows fame can be taken away quickly.
It was so muggy and wet one summer afternoon before his junior year that Fields slipped over and over as he sprinted up and down bleachers.
He kept running. He was done doubting himself. He was done splitting time with Frost. He was determined to seize the starting role.
That day, Fields was working out with his cousin, Michael Newton, the state record-holder in the 400-meter dash and a former junior college indoor national champion in the 4×400-meter relay for Hinds Community College.
Newton knew Fields had a lot of power, a lot of strength, but he needed to get quicker, weather be damned.
Newton put him through grueling “X’s.” Fields started on one corner of the field and sprinted diagonally to the other corner before jogging across the goal line and sprinting again to complete an X. Fields ran 6 X’s in a row without breaks. When he looked tired, Newton asked him how badly he wanted it.
“Instead of answering, he just ran faster,” Newton says.
If Fields wasn’t on the field, he was on YouTube, teaching himself coverages and fronts. “I’ve never worked harder in my life,” Fields says.
That fall he battled Frost every practice. They competed pass for pass, talking mess after each one, thrilled for any chance to outshine the other. “Our coaches hated it,” Frost says. “They wanted us to support each other, but it really helped us.”
Fields grew to 6’2″, 205 and began his junior season with a bang. His first pass went for a 60-yard touchdown, sailing 40 yards in the air. He accounted for five touchdowns (four passing and one rushing). The pieces of confidence he had lost glued themselves back together.
“We all knew,” Frost says. “It was his time.”
Taking over as starter, Fields completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,770 yards and 23 touchdowns.
“All his dormant athleticism, the freakish things he did when he was little, just came back alive,” Ivant says. “He was faster than everybody again. Quicker. His footwork was better. And he threw the ball better and farther and harder.”
Frost, who now plays at Mercer, was present for Fields’ signing day. The two are good friends now. “I really give him credit,” Fields says. “I don’t think I would be as good as I am today if he didn’t push me like he did. … I would probably just be kind of average right now.”
You not gon’ start till your senior year.
Go to Florida where you belong!!!
I want to see this kid play. He’s not gonna play at Georgia.
Have fun watching Fromm from the bench.
It’s not too late to switch.
Fields doesn’t read the comments on his Instagram.
“They don’t know my story. They don’t know what I’ve gone through in life,” he says, getting ready to leave for physical therapy. He broke his index finger against Dalton High last season. He has gained most of his flexibility back and is working on his strength.
“I know deep down inside competition is actually what makes a person better,” Fields says.
There was one college coach during the recruiting process who told Fields how “great” he was; that he had never seen a quarterback with “that type of arm” and “that type of athleticism” in all his years of coaching. Yet the coach was adamant: Fields would sit. There was already an incumbent starter.
Fields never texted that coach back. In his eyes, no spot should be guaranteed, for a returner or a rookie.
It wasn’t just that Georgia is his hometown school. It wasn’t just that Jaiden will be playing softball there, either. It was a final players-only panel on his official visit that sealed the deal. Recruits and returners could say whatever they wanted without fear that the coaches would hear. The players said coach Kirby Smart doesn’t play politics. That was all Fields needed to know.
“I don’t ask for promises to play. I just ask that [Smart] plays the best player, point blank, the person that gives the team the best chance to win,” Fields says. “Really, it’s all up to me. If I do my job, study and just put the work in, I feel like I’m better than anyone.”