Greg Frey ran to the sideline and cried. The former Ohio State quarterback had faced his crucible moment and passed the test.
“I bawled like a baby. There was such an overflow of emotion,” Frey said this week while discussing the unavoidable defining moment for Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields.
Frey doesn’t know when Fields' biggest trial will come, only that it is inevitable.
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“There will be a crossroads when that moment happens, and it has to,” he said.
Fields has played almost flawlessly through two games but has not faced the kind of adversity that tests mettle and separates the good from the great.
“Every quarterback, and especially at a place like this, the game will come to you in crunch time. If you’re trailing, it will come to you,” Frey said. “The question is how long can the coaches postpone that so you have enough maturity and reps to rise to the occasion?”
Are two games enough? We may find out Saturday when Ohio State visits Indiana in what will be Fields’ first road game as Buckeyes quarterback.
Frey’s first defining moment came in 1987 at Michigan when as a freshman he stepped in for injured quarterback Tom Tupa with the score tied in the final minute. Frey completed a 19-yard pass on third-and-9. The Buckeyes ended up winning 23-20.
“(Coach) Earle (Bruce) loved to say how all his assistants told him not to let me throw the ball,” Frey said. “He was, ‘(Bleep) you, he’s ready.’ That play bolstered my confidence beyond what you can believe. Every guy wonders inside if, with the game on the line, you have the confidence to make the play in the moment.”
Frey’s second such moment arrived in the third game of the 1988 season, when the unranked Buckeyes trailed No. 7 LSU 33-27 with less than two minutes to play. Frey, a sophomore from Cincinnati, felt the weight as he went under center after an intentional LSU safety that made it 33-29 with 1:34 left.
“Here I am, the coaches are babysitting me along, not putting the game in my hands, but the game is in my hands now,” Frey said. “So it’s here we go. I hit Bobby Olive on a post to win the game.”
Returning to the sideline after giving Ohio State a 36-33 lead with 38 seconds remaining, Frey’s eyes filled with tears.
“Guys are like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I said, ‘I’ve dreamed of that moment, and it just happened,’” Frey recalled.
Craig Krenzel described his defining moments differently, explaining that upon reflection he views any career as a procession of tests.
“What makes football so awesome is that almost every player who is starting or contributing has a small sample of plays that, if enough guys make those plays in key moments, you win. If not enough guys make them, you lose,” Krenzel said. “We were gifted with players (in 2002) who made them in key moments.”
Chris Gamble returned an interception for a touchdown against Penn State, Maurice Clarett stole the ball from Miami safety Sean Taylor in the national championship game, and Krenzel connected with Michael Jenkins on fourth-and-1 to defeat Purdue. Without those step-up moments, the Buckeyes probably don’t win the national title.
No one can guarantee that Fields will follow suit when the situation calls for it.
“Even the coaches don’t know,” Frey said.
But both former quarterbacks see in Fields a player who has all the tools to rise to the occasion when needed.
“He’s got a very high ceiling. He’s physically gifted and playing in a (perfect) system for him,” Krenzel said. “I’m excited to watch him develop and grow.”
Krenzel isn’t 100% sold just yet — how can anyone be? — because he needs to see continued development.
“To me, it’s how quickly does he get into that comfort zone with respect to being the guy at Ohio State?," Krenzel said. "As the schedule gets harder, does he continue to improve on his decision-making in the little things?”
Frey likes what he sees, particularly Fields’ ability to make big plays with his feet and his patience in not forcing throws into traffic.
The only question is whether Fields comes up big in the biggest moments?
“Is he a gamer? I watched a little bit of "QB1" and he stepped up and made plays in high school,” Frey said, referencing the 2017 Netflix documentary that followed Fields and two other high school quarterbacks through their senior seasons. “To me, either guys have that or don’t.”
So far, Fields has shown the poise, speed, accuracy and arm strength to lead Ohio State toward the playoffs. But we won’t know if he has the innate ability to perform in the clutch until the moment presents itself. Maybe today. Maybe next week. But it’s coming.