Ohio State rides Justin Fields’ toughness, leadership to championship game

Immediately after Clemson’s James Skalski speared Justin Fields on New Year’s Day – we dress it up as “targeting” these days – Pablo Fields took a phone call.

A friend of the family, a doctor, was reaching out to Fields’ father, bearing a scrap of cold comfort.

“She said he should be fine, the spleen is on the other side,” Pablo recalled.

Plenty of other internal parts were still in play, though. Who knew for sure what damage had been done by the kind of hit that reaches through the flat screen and knocks the breath out of a viewer? What was later revealed, after Justin emerged from the sideline M.A.S.H. tent where pain goes to be numbed, was that between grimaces the Ohio State quarterback remained capable of something special. His first pass back, maybe his wobbliest ever, was for a touchdown. Others would be much prettier. Count that as one of his six touchdown passes in a 49-28 playoff semifinals victory over the Tigers.

Flipping the script from a season ago, the quarterback from Kennesaw prevailed this time over the quarterback from Cartersville (Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence). In most gripping fashion.

“I’ll never forget that night. ... He’s just tough,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said Thursday.

But at the time:

“I was a linebacker (at Eastern Kentucky), and I’ve folded up some guys like that when they didn’t have the rib protectors on. And Justin doesn’t wear the biggest rib protector in the world. Seeing your kid flipping around out there like a fish out of water, you can’t do anything but close your eyes and pray,” Pablo said.

It seems as if this entire jury-rigged football season has been one long leadership course for Fields. That the Buckeyes have gone from not playing the season by Big Ten decree, to piecing together a half-dozen games between COVID-19 cancellations to Monday’s College Football Playoff Championship game against Alabama speaks to just how he has crushed that required course.

If they can skirt the virus and make it to Monday’s game, Fields’ fitness will be the dominant question. How that hit still echoes through his rib cage will be key.

So, dad, will your boy be anywhere near functional in his likely last college game? “We’ll see. We’ll see,” Pablo said.

“I’ll be good on Monday night,” Justin said Thursday. On this subject, they’re all cagey around the Ohio State program.

Fields’ old coach at Harrison High, Matt Dickman, expects his competitive nature to override all else. “He obviously made it through the last game. And barring any other things that occur during the week, I have no doubt he’ll be out there on the field,” Dickman said.

“He doesn’t want to let anybody down. You always love coaching kids who are thinking about their teammates first instead of themselves,” he added.

Maybe when Fields transferred from Georgia to Ohio State at the start of 2019, he initially held back a little. Leaving home, being such a high-profile transfer with such scant experience at Georgia, going to a locker room of strangers, it was only natural that he’d quietly study the new landscape.

But by the time the page turned to 2020, Fields was making it clear that he was in charge. Early, when the Buckeyes were picking their way through spring workouts during the first stages of the pandemic, offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson noticed one guy who seemed to be pushing all the others. “I just think (Fields) has doing a really good job of being a little bit more of what you think that quarterback’s going to be as a strong leader,” he said at the time.

At spring break, Fields came home to Kennesaw and never let up. He changed his diet, joining his father’s plant-based approach. He worked out maniacally. Pablo could remember when Justin was in high school how he would load a bag of balls into his pickup in the morning to work on his throwing at Harrison before class. But now this offseason he began to wonder if his son wasn’t throwing too much.

If there was anything left for a father to learn about his 21-year-old son, it was this: “He works,” Pablo said. “You may know the glory, but you got to see the story. He works physically. He works mentally. He works on what he eats, how he carries himself. It’s all a package. I didn’t know he worked that hard.”

Which made the Big Ten’s announcement in August that it was scraping the season because of the coronavirus all the more soul-crushing for Fields. All that work lost in the maze of football bureaucracy.

He couldn’t understand the rush to cancel. Coming from the south and the SEC, he couldn’t help but notice how that conference was pressing on.

Fields had two choices:

Accept the Big Ten’s decision and quietly begin training for the NFL draft.

Or, step out front of a hash-tag movement – #WeWantToPlay – and advocate for the player’s right to determine whether to play.

(A third choice, one posited by some Georgia fans after Fields was spotted taking in a Bulldogs scrimmage, was that he’d transfer back to Athens. It was never going to happen, his father said. He was just in town to visit his sister, Jaiden, a UGA student and softball player. He merely was a football player who wanted to see a little football, dad said.)

Fields chose the second option. He took to social media with a call to give this season a chance. He started an online petition for the Big Ten to reconsider that drew more than 300,000 signatures.

He now was an official face of the game, who along with Lawrence spoke for the players’ desire to play. While it’s debatable exactly how much influence any player – even the most noted – wields in college football, Fields efforts didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates.

“He’s grown a lot,” said Ohio State running back Trey Sermon, who played his high school football at Marietta’s Sprayberry. “He took on that role and he spoke out, and he was trying to do whatever he could just to make sure we had the opportunity to play. That just shows what type of guy he is.”

Of course, then came the obligation of backing up his position of leadership with performances to match. On that score, it’s worth nothing that Fields’ thus-far signature game as a Buckeye in the national semifinal came just two weeks after his worst one. Against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship game, he passed for just 114 yards, completing just 12 of 27 passes while throwing a pair of interceptions. Hardly the stuff of a player expected to be taken in the first handful of picks during the next NFL draft.

“I think that again shows his competitiveness,” Day said. “You started to hear some rumblings about the fact that he didn’t play very well (against Northwestern), and I know that bothered him. It took a couple days to recover from.”

Now having vented his undamaged spleen at Clemson, there remains one more collegiate challenge, the biggest one out there, in Alabama. Time to show the Crimson Tide he’s a little bit more than the guy they last saw, when the Bulldogs ran him in during a disastrous fourth-and-11 fake-punt attempt in the 2018 SEC Championship game. (“All I remember is I went in for the punt and everyone was yelling my name, and the punt didn’t go the way we wanted to,” he said Thursday when asked about it by an Alabama-based writer.)

Mindful of any SEC trademark infringement here, but can there be any doubt that from where Fields has come this season, being here just means more?

“At one point, you’re standing on the tiptoes of anticipation about this season and your legs get cut out from under you. No season. No football,” Pablo said. “To get to this point, it’s great.”

“It’s definitely more meaningful because this is where we wanted to be before the season even started and when the season got canceled,” Justin said. “All the stuff we’ve done in the past – all the workouts, getting the games canceled, saying we’re not playing, saying we’re playing that messes with your mental. All the stuff this team has been through, the big sacrifices, have been for this moment.”