CHICAGO — As Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields was struggling through his debut as an NFL starter against the Browns last Sept. 26, his father, Pablo, went to a concessions stand in Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium.
A self-proclaimed “nervous wreck” during Justin’s games, Pablo won’t sit with anyone but his wife, JoAnn, during games, and he doesn’t wear a “Fields” jersey because he doesn’t want those conversations. But on this day, it was unavoidable as he stood in line.
“I guess Fields wasn’t ready,” a fan said to Pablo, unaware he was speaking to the QB’s father.
Pablo, a retired Atlanta police officer of 30 years, didn’t need confirmation things weren’t going well. Justin was sacked nine times in a 26-6 loss.
“When you’re in that storm, you hate it as a parent,” Pablo said. “You hate it for your kid, but I’ve always seen them coming out stronger on the other side.”
The storm raged throughout Fields’ rookie season. Out of 31 qualifiers, he ranked last in QBR at 26.4, and he was sacked 36 times in 11 games, the highest rate in the NFL. The Bears finished 6-11 and fired head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace.
The Bears aren’t expected to improve much this season — their over-under is six wins — but those close to Fields are optimistic he will take the next step in his development. They’ve seen him persevere through struggles in high school and college, and they’ve seen the work he has put in this offseason.
For Fields, it’s about embracing the process of improving, instead of trying to forget what happened last season.
“When you’ve been doing something so long, you start to love it more and more,” Fields said. “And I love the failure that comes with it. I love everything that comes with it, because I know that at the end of the day, that as long as I give my best, and I know what I can do, I know that once we reach our full potential, what we’ll be able to do.”
It didn’t take long for the 23-year-old to clarify his remark.
“Yeah, we need to roll that back,” Fields said with a laugh. “I don’t love failing, but you just have to be able to know how to bounce back, know how to get back in that mindset and get back rolling.”
It hadn’t rained anywhere in Cobb County, located northwest of Atlanta, on Sept. 1, 2017. But on the day Fields’ Harrison High School team traveled to rival North Cobb, the skies opened up, and the storm seemed to hover over the field.
The slick conditions took a toll. With Harrison backed up in its own red zone, Fields fumbled on back-to-back possessions, both leading to North Cobb touchdowns.
Fields ended up throwing for two TDs and running for two more, but Harrison lost that night, and things got worse for Fields on Oct. 19 when he broke the index finger on his throwing hand during a nationally televised game. His senior season was over.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart was in attendance the night Fields injured his finger, because Fields — the nation’s top recruit — had committed to play for the Bulldogs.
Fields’ college choice was a meaningful decision for the family. Justin’s sister, Jaiden, had committed to Georgia as a softball recruit two years earlier, before her freshman year at Harrison High.
Jaiden said her mom pictured the siblings having picnics in the campus courtyard while attending the same university, which was located less than two hours from their hometown of Kennesaw, Georgia.
But that dream assumed Justin would continue his football ascent. Fields played sporadically as a freshman, completing 27 passes for 328 yards and four TDs, but he was unable to unseat starting sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm, who helped Georgia to its first SEC title in 12 years as a freshman.
There was also an incident in which a Georgia baseball player allegedly shouted racist remarks at Fields during a football game and was subsequently dismissed from the team.
So after one season at Georgia, Fields decided to transfer to Ohio State. In the waiver application to gain immediate eligibility, Fields’ lawyer, Tom Mars, said the transfer had “nothing to do with racism.”
The timing of Fields’ move out of his Athens apartment turned what would have been a joyous occasion for the family into a bittersweet day for Pablo and JoAnn, who were moving Jaiden into her dorm room at Georgia that same day.
“My mom was there moving me in, and my dad was helping move him out,” Jaiden said. “She was taking stuff out of my dad’s truck to put in my room, and they were taking stuff out of his room to put back in the truck.”
Once he landed in Columbus, Fields never looked back.
The Buckeyes were the top-ranked team in the country and hadn’t trailed by double digits all season until the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 8, 2019. Wisconsin led 21-7 at the half, and its pressure was getting to Fields, who was sacked three times while wearing a brace on his left knee to protect a sprained ligament.
But after going 7-of-14 passing in the first half, Fields completed 12 of 17 attempts in the second half and threw three touchdown passes to lead OSU to the College Football Playoff with a 34-21 victory.
Fields finished third in Heisman Trophy voting that season, and his leadership at OSU wasn’t confined to statistical achievements.
After the Big Ten announced it was canceling its 2020 football season amid pandemic concerns, Fields started a petition for the conference to reinstate the season and allow players the individual choice to opt out.
Fields chose to stay in Columbus and train. Others followed suit. The Big Ten ultimately reversed its decision and opted to play a shortened season.
“Even when we thought we weren’t going to have a season, he kept the spirit up and always kept us prepared to go,” said former Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson, who’s currently with the New York Jets. “He made sure the receivers were getting their work in.
“When the season came around and we got to play, I felt like it came together really well because of those reasons.”
Fields’ on-field leadership was on display in 2020, from the time he ran down and blocked a defender to allow running back Trey Sermon a clear path toward the end zone against Michigan State, to his quick recovery from a blow to the ribs delivered by Clemson linebacker James Skalski in the 2021 Sugar Bowl.
James Skalski was called for targeting and ejected after this hit on Justin Fields. pic.twitter.com/0oqTQCTEDi
— ESPN (@espn) January 2, 2021
After limping to the sideline to get evaluated by trainers, Fields returned and threw a touchdown on his first play back. Two of his best passes came later, when he connected with Chris Olave for a 56-yard touchdown before launching a 45-yard TD pass to Jameson Williams.
“It’s the way that he gets hurt, he goes to the sidelines, he gets checked out by the doctors and then he comes in immediately and throws a touchdown pass,” Ohio State quarterbacks’ coach Corey Dennis said, recalling what made the moment special. “That just speaks to his leadership, just the love of his teammates is that he was gonna come back in and he was gonna finish that drive.”
Fields’ six-touchdown performance in the national semifinal win over Clemson was the highlight of his junior year. He helped lead OSU to a 7-1 season, which ended with a 52-24 loss to Alabama in the CFP National Championship. Fields was the first quarterback to guide Ohio State to back-to-back playoff appearances.
In two seasons, Fields led the Buckeyes to a 20-2 record, finishing second all time in OSU history in touchdowns (63) and completion percentage (68.4), and 10th all time in yards (5,373). He finished seventh in Heisman voting in 2020.
Three months after that win over Clemson, the Bears traded up to draft him with the 11th overall pick in 2021.
The Bears’ lack of stability at quarterback has been a punchline for years, and it doesn’t help that they play in the same division as Green Bay, where Aaron Rodgers has been the starter since 2008. And he succeeded Brett Favre, who had been the starter for 16 years prior.
The Bears have had 16 starting quarterbacks in the 14 years since Rodgers took over. Rodgers joked last season he could name them all, but he ran out of time trying.
“I can’t wait to be the first one to change that,” Fields said of the Bears’ QB woes. “That’s my mindset. I’m excited for the challenge.”
To prepare, Fields worked with his personal quarterbacks coach, Quincy Avery, three days a week in Georgia during the offseason. Those 90-minute sessions focused on honing his footwork, pocket drills, rhythm throws and hitch throws.
But half of Avery’s job was making sure Fields didn’t wear himself out. The owner of QB Takeover even implemented a throw count.
“Justin’s not somebody who’s super patient in any way,” Avery said. “He wants to be the best immediately, and I respect that. I don’t try and slow him down at all from that process.”
Fields’ teammates have noticed a difference.
“I lined up in the wrong formation,” Bears wide receiver Byron Pringle said, recalling how he was held accountable by Fields during a practice. “But that’s what quarterbacks do. That’s leadership. That’s not him harping up on me, or nothing like that.”
Tight end Cole Kmet noticed how Fields no longer just repeats the playcalls he gets from the sideline, he tells his teammates what the plays are.
“There’s a difference in that,” Kmet said. “You just feel him in the huddle.”
On one play during Chicago’s preseason win over Kansas City, the quarterback vacated the pocket too quickly and slid for no gain. It was what happened afterward that convinced new Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy that Fields is growing into the role.
“He didn’t let the last play affect the next play, which is something that we’ve been working really hard on from spring,” Getsy said. “Whenever he threw an interception or something in the spring, the next play was bad, too.”
If preseason performances are any indication, Fields is ready for the regular season. He completed 14 of 16 passes for 156 yards and three touchdowns — no interceptions — against the Browns in the Bears’ finale on Saturday. His quarterback rating was 146.9, just off the perfect score of 158.3.
Fields was ready that night in FirstEnergy Stadium, and now he’ll have a chance to prove he’s ready to meet perhaps his biggest challenge yet.
Contributing: ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini