Before he picked up the phone, Justin Fields was nervous.
He had bad news to deliver.
In the early days of June 2017, after he had finished his junior year of high school, Fields was decommitting from Penn State, a decision he would reveal to coach James Franklin.
It wasn't easy. He had been committed for six months, the first college football program that he had given a pledge, and he felt a close bond with Franklin, as well as Joe Moorhead, then the offensive coordinator.
“Coach Franklin didn't see it coming,” Fields said. “That phone call was one of the hardest phone calls I've ever had to make.”
This week, Fields recounted the stage from his high-profile recruitment. Nearly 2½ years later, he will face the Nittany Lions for the first time as Ohio State's starting quarterback, a game Saturday that could settle the Big Ten East and possibly a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Fields often describes himself as even-keeled, which helps him on the field, but as a teenager, he dreaded the phone call to explain his decommitment.
“It's really like breaking up with your girlfriend,” Fields said. “If you have a good relationship with her, you might have to because of circumstances.”
The circumstances involved distance, an issue that emerged as a “key factor,” according to his father, Pablo.
Fields grew up in Kennesaw, Georgia, a northwest suburb of Atlanta, and it was a trek for him and his family to reach Penn State.
To make it to campus on recruiting visits, they often took flights to Baltimore, then rented a car for a three-hour drive. If he was to bring his wife and two daughters to games to watch his son, Pablo estimated it would cost about $2,000 each time. Hotels were in short supply around State College, and Pablo recalled dropping hundreds of dollars when they once stayed at a Days Inn for a game.
The pull to stay closer to home drew Fields to Georgia, where he committed four months later and spent his freshman season before transferring to Ohio State.
“Kids evolve, and they get further along in their recruitment,” Pablo said. “They're 17-year-old boys, they change their minds. So it was nothing negative about Penn State.”
Penn State was one of the first prominent programs to offer Fields a scholarship, extending one after he attended its prospect camp in June 2016. In front of coaches, Fields, who had just finished his sophomore season of high school, went through a throwing session and testing, including running the 40-yard dash, a performance that furthered their interest.
“You come up with your list of things that you're looking for in terms of characteristics,” Franklin said. “Height, weight, speed, intelligence, release, accuracy, touchdown-to-interception ratio, win/loss percentage, all the things we look at when we're evaluating and studying quarterbacks. Watching him in games, watching him in practice, throwing live, he checked a lot of boxes.”
The school also rose to the top of Fields' list.
Pablo mentioned the family liked Penn State's academics, a significant consideration early in his recruitment as he also garnered interest from Duke and Northwestern, among others. He even visited Harvard at one point.
Penn State was thought to be a happy medium, a mixture of football prominence and academic prestige.
Fields noted as much when he gave his father lists of pros and cons for his top schools. For a few months, Franklin and Moorhead had swayed him.
It was a good time to sell their program after the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten in 2016 and played in the Rose Bowl as one of the nation's highest-scoring teams. Fields saw himself as a possible fit in Moorhead's offense, though the coordinator with the reputation as a bright play-caller ultimately left to become Mississippi State's coach in November 2017.
When Fields committed to the Nittany Lions as a junior, his high school coach at Harrison, Matt Dickmann thought it might have also been a “relief” to settle on a school.
“At that age, you're getting so much mail and attention,” Dickmann said, “that he just felt comfortable.”
He needed more time.
In hindsight, Pablo thought blue-chip prospects, including his son, were well-served to wait until later in their recruitment before committing.
“College coaches can be really pushy for a commitment because they want to lock up that spot,” Pablo said. “And if you had to do it all over again, or if I had another five-star coming up, I probably wouldn't commit until the very last second. I would let everything play out before he committed and go from there.”