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How Ohio State's Justin Fields became the torchbearer for a Big Ten football season

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra

Two months ago, Justin Fields sat in his apartment in Columbus and ignited a movement to resurrect the Big Ten’s football season.

It was an act of desperation.

The conference had called off games for the fall for the first time in its 124-year history, but Fields sought a Hail Mary pass, initiating an online petition that called for the decision to be reversed.

“I didn’t know if this was gonna work or not,” Fields said, “but they already canceled it, so why not do it?”

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The idea came from his parents and those of other Ohio State players who were embarking on similar lobbying efforts.

As the only returning Heisman Trophy finalist, Fields projected a larger profile than almost every other player across the college football landscape. The size of the star quarterback’s platform offered an opportunity to boost public support.

Within hours of the petition’s launch, it garnered more than 100,000 signatures, and Fields appeared on national television shows over the following days to further the case for playing this fall, despite risks resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

The push’s ultimate effectiveness in nudging the conference to reverse course remains debate fodder for pundits, but the effort unmistakably left Fields as the torchbearer for Big Ten football in 2020.

Justin Fields reacts after running for a first down near the end zone during a game against Penn State at Ohio Stadium in Columbus on Nov. 23, 2019. Fields used his platform as Ohio State quarterback to lead a lobbying effort aimed at persuading the Big Ten to play fall football in 2020.

As the much-anticipated season begins this weekend, Fields awaits grand possibilities in his return to the field, beginning with the Buckeyes’ opening game on Saturday against Nebraska.

“His goals are right there in front of him,” said Quincy Avery, a quarterbacks coach who has worked with Fields since his high school days in Georgia. “You get the opportunity to play on a team that's not only talented enough to win a national championship, but he has the opportunity to be one of the best players in the country, become one of those first-round (NFL draft) picks.

“Everything's right there. If you put that much work in, and you know all the things you've done to be successful, then it doesn't make sense not to want to play.”

Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) poses for a portrait on Tuesday, July 23, 2019 at Woody Hayes Athletic Center in Columbus, Ohio. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

Left with a bitter taste from last season’s heartbreaking defeat to Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal, Fields already felt deepened motivation when he began preparing for this fall.

But his focus grew when he returned home to suburban Atlanta in March at the onset of the pandemic. With spring practices canceled and the season looking uncertain, he and teammates found a new outlook.

“Having that happen really, really helped us in the long run and not take football for granted,” Fields said, “and I think it also mentally made me work harder.”

As part of a nutrition challenge with his family he adopted a vegan diet, a healthier eating plan he believes made him faster. He trained at a local gym every day. He went to multiple throwing sessions each week with private quarterbacks coaches. Some of the workouts with Avery featured other college quarterbacks, allowing them to exchange notes and pointers about playing the position.

Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) poses for a portrait on Tuesday, July 23, 2019 at Woody Hayes Athletic Center in Columbus, Ohio. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

When Ohio State players returned to team facilities for workouts in June, Mickey Marotti, the Buckeyes’ strength and conditioning guru, noticed the hardened resolve from the quarterback.

“He was ready to rock and roll,” Marotti said. “His quarantine workouts at home in Georgia were to another level.”

Fields’ offseason transformation extended to intangible qualities.

Throughout preseason practices, coaches and teammates have lauded his vocal leadership, a significant shift from when he transferred from the University of Georgia as a reserved 19-year-old early last year and initially was homesick.

Jake Hausmann, an OSU senior tight end, noticed Fields had grown more willing to review finer points of the offense. On some occasions, he showed teammates how he preferred them to run routes by demonstrating them himself.

“He’s given us all these coaching points, about what angle we want to break it off at and how we're supposed to be coming out of it,” Hausmann said.

If any pass falls incomplete in practice, wide receiver Chris Olave said, Fields is quick to review the throw with his intended target, looking to fix their timing.

It has helped that his knowledge of the playbook expanded in recent months. Each week during the offseason, he and coach Ryan Day reviewed game film to broaden his understanding.

Now 21 and entering his junior season with the Buckeyes, Fields had assumed a larger leadership role before the pandemic. In strength and conditioning workouts in the winter, he grew more willing to hold teammates accountable for their effort and performance.

“Somebody wasn’t running hard enough, somebody wasn't lifting hard enough, somebody wasn't competing hard enough, he would let them know,” Marotti said. “When you're quiet, you’re not a real a vocal person, for you to do, that's uncomfortable. It just kind of naturally happened.”

Fields said he recognized a leadership void on the team, pointing to the departure of star defensive end Chase Young, as well as receivers K.J. Hill and Austin Mack, seniors in 2019 who were veteran voices for the offense.

“So me playing quarterback, I had no choice but to be a leader,” Fields said. “That was my role and just what I had to do to make the team better.”

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields looks for room to run during a game against Cincinnati on Sept. 7, 2019.

It was a night and day difference from his debut season at Ohio State. Marotti said Fields was quiet at first, at times a little unsure.

“I think he was confident in his skills,” Marotti added, “but you're new, you're trying to get to know the culture and kind of what's expected. As the season went on, obviously he grasped that, he matured, got better at all those things. Now it's the second time around.”

Taking on a more prominent voice within his locker room, Fields also felt more comfortable with his public platform.

It’s why he didn’t hesitate to petition administrators to reinstate this fall’s season. He felt no nerves over pressing them. He was just accepting his role.

“I was really just trying to do whatever I could to play a game I love,” Fields said. “If that's what it took, that's what I was going to do. Of course, I'm more of an introvert; I don't really speak out much. But I'm starting to learn more and more to do it, and I'm trying to learn how much my voice has an impact on the world.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman