Soon after Justin Fields arrived at Ohio State on Jan. 4, he wanted to leave.

He was 19 and had never lived anywhere but Georgia. Fields knew Buckeyes coach Ryan Day a little bit, but everything else was unfamiliar — the other coaches, the school, his teammates, the winter weather.

 

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“It’s hard going into a new place where you just don’t know anybody,” Fields told The Dispatch.

So he called his father back in Kennesaw, Georgia.

“Justin calls me up and says, ‘Hey, Dad. Come get me,’” Pablo Fields said.

Justin’s plan, Pablo said, was to re-enroll at Georgia. But Pablo understood, as Day did, that Justin was just homesick. He told Justin to give it a couple of more days and then call back if he still wanted to leave — though he had no intention of letting him.

“He just told me to stay in it, to pray about it and just trust in God,” Justin said. “It was crazy because the next day I met a few friends, and I felt comfortable from there.”

Fields has certainly looked comfortable all season. The sophomore has emerged as a Heisman Trophy contender by throwing for 22 touchdowns and running for eight while throwing only one interception in leading Ohio State to blowouts in all seven games.

Now comes his and the Buckeyes’ biggest test — a Wisconsin team featuring the top-ranked defense in the country.

“They have great players,” Fields said. “We have great players. It’s definitely going to be one for the books.”

 

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Justin has two sisters, but Pablo admits he was particularly tough on his son growing up. He’s a retired police officer and former Marine who played football at Eastern Kentucky. Pablo believes he didn’t fulfill his own athletic potential, in part because he lacked a father to instill discipline.

He did that with Justin. When Justin got a “C” in sixth grade, Pablo hauled him off to Walmart. He bought him a sweatsuit two sizes too small and unfashionable Velcro-fastened tennis shoes. He made Justin wear those in shame for three weeks.

“He didn’t get another ‘C,’” Pablo said.

Justin is thankful for his father’s tough love.

“That’s kind of what’s made me into the man I am today,” he said.

Of course, athletic talent is a huge part of it. But after dominating his peers as a kid, Justin’s physical development stalled in his early teen years, and other kids surpassed him.

“I just was an average player,” he said.

That spurred him to work even harder.

“That’s when you really saw his determination, his work ethic and his zest to play the game,” said Ron Veal, his personal quarterback coach since the sixth grade. “He really wanted to be a really good quarterback.”

Fields eventually hit a growth spurt, growing 5 inches in a year.

“All that stuff he was working on — his sets, his drops, his movements, throwing on the run — all of that was there, and now he had the size and height and the strength,” Veal said.

The scholarship offers were slow to come at first, much to Fields’ frustration. He had shared time at quarterback as a sophomore at Harrison High School. He was determined to seize the job the next year and regularly trained with Veal at 7 a.m. before school.

Fields had a breakout junior season and rocketed up recruiting boards. He became the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2018 class, behind only quarterback Trevor Lawrence, another Veal client.

Unlike Lawrence, who led Clemson to the national championship, Fields was unable to win the starting job at Georgia from incumbent Jake Fromm. His spirits sank.

“I probably wasn’t doing all the stuff I needed to do at the time because I’m a freshman and not really playing and then getting down about not playing,” he said. “Every competitor wants to play, so that experience of not doing what I was supposed to do after seeing myself not playing as much as I’d like, I think slowed me down a little bit as a player.

“It just shows you that no matter how much you want something, if it’s not a part of God’s plan, it’s not going to work out.”

He decided to transfer, with one school clearly at the top of his preferred destinations.

“I already knew I was going to Ohio State the whole time,” Fields said. “I talked to some other schools, but my mind was basically set on Ohio State.”

He knew Day from a visit at the tail end of the high school recruiting process. But Fields was committed to Georgia, and his friend Emory Jones was then committed to Ohio State. The timing just didn’t work for him or Ohio State.

But now, with Dwayne Haskins Jr. clearly headed to the NFL, the timing was perfect.

“The first phone call that I got, the minute he was in the portal, was from Ryan Day,” Pablo said.

The dad and Day talked every day, gaining familiarity and trust, and Fields became a Buckeye.

 

• • •

 

Fields is now a star, though he doesn’t carry himself like one. He is shy by nature and unimpressed by the trappings of fame. He has spent time with NFL quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Cam Newton and never even bothered to ask for a selfie with them.

His phone calls home yield little information.

“My wife is an attorney, and she has to just cross-examine him to get any information from him,” Pablo said with a laugh. “’How's it going?’ ‘Good.’ ‘How's practice?’ ‘Good.’ I mean, no details.”

Quarterbacks must be leaders, but Fields knew he had to earn respect before he could assume that role. So he put his head down and worked hard in the weight room and with teammates throwing on their own.

Receiver K.J. Hill said the most-striking thing about Fields is his humility.

“He’s a big-time recruit,” Hill said. “He’s a big-time player for us right now. Just how he handles the spotlight, he doesn’t change anything. He never changes. He acts the same way on and off the field.”

Fields said he has changed dramatically since he arrived in Columbus.

“I'm completely different,” he said. “I can't even describe how different I am. There's so much I've changed in all aspects of my life — spiritually, in football, just life in general. I feel like I just feel like all the experiences and all the trials and tribulations I've been through have matured me as a person a lot.”

In other words, Pablo Fields needn’t worry about a phone call from a homesick son wanting to leave.

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch