Justin Fields’ ‘it’ factor: toughness in big moments

Bears GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy have spent years talking about “multipliers” — players that make their teammates exponentially better.

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Justin Fields watches during Ohio State’s win against Clemson on Jan. 1.

John Bazemore, AP Photos

Justin Fields took the shotgun snap from his own 36-yard line on Dec. 5 and handed the ball off to running back Trey Sermon. Catching Michigan State in a blitz, Sermon burst through the line of scrimmage, bounced to the outside hash — over the tip of the Spartans’ helmet logo painted at midfield — and sprinted up the right sideline.

By the time he got to midfield, Fields was galloping about five yards behind his running back. At the 30, Fields was even with Sermon, with MSU safety Tre Person — the only player within 50 feet — between them. At the 7, Fields popped Person with his right shoulder, tumbling him to the ground, and Sermon crossed the goal line.

Fields, who’d been knocked out of the game in the second quarter after a tough hit, outran a running back and a safety just to make a block — with his team ahead by four touchdowns.

“I’ve been around a lot of tough quarterbacks, but he’s definitely up there in regards to his experience at the college level — and I think he hangs his hat on that,” coach Matt Nagy said of the Bears’ No. 11 overall pick, who is scheduled to make his rookie minicamp debut Friday at Halas Hall. “And as we all grow with him, I think we’re gonna sense that he really has a little bit of that ‘it’ factor to him, too, which is neat. That has to come naturally to everybody. Some have it, some don’t.”

Fields does.

“My No. 1 strength … [is] just showing up in big moments,” Fields said. “I feel like when big moments present themselves, I feel like there’s just another thing that kicks inside of me.”

His most memorable moments spring from his toughness.

In this year’s national semifinal game, Clemson linebacker Justin Skalski was ejected for targeting after hitting Fields’ ribs with his helmet.

“One of the more vicious shots I’ve seen in a long time,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said.

The injury would ache for weeks. But Fields sat out one play. On his first snap back in, he threw a 9-yard touchdown pass. He threw three more touchdowns in the next 22 minutes — a 12-yarder with 11 seconds left in the half, a 56-yarder and a 44-yarder.

“That’s his competitive toughness,” Day said. “And when you’re projecting somebody into the NFL, you better be tough. You better be physically tough and mentally tough.”

He’s been both. Fields sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in the third quarter of Ohio State’s 2019 rivalry game against Michigan. He returned to the game with a brace on — and threw a 30-yard touchdown on his first play.

Asked about the touchdown, Fields stressed “just how big that game is to Ohio State and to our fans and to our community. “ Bears general manager Ryan Pace saw it first-hand; he was in attendance.

Day and Nagy have been friends since the two played quarterback and New Hampshire and Delaware, respectively, at the same time. Day spent the last two years telling Nagy about Fields’ “generational talent.” The quarterback lost two games as a starter, and both were in the playoffs. Day thinks he’s an even better fit in the pros.

“You’re not going to be able to survive in [the NFL] if you’re not willing to take shots,” Day said. “Because you’re going to take shots in the pocket and you’ve got to sustain through a full season.”

Fields’ size helps. At 6-3, he’s taller than all but one Bears receiver. At 227 pounds, he’s a cheeseburger shy of inside linebacker Roquan Smith’s 230. But his mindset is what sets his apart, Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said.

“Sometimes quarterbacks aren’t physically grinding like the rest of the guys,” Wilson said. ‘But he would show up and work his butt off.”

Wilson appreciates the superstar moments Fields posted after getting hurt in games — but also the fact that he was ready go to in practice the following Tuesday.

“All the other guys you might talk to would say, ‘He took a hit and came back and played,’” Wilson said. “But I loved his durability, because I think for a young player to be great, you gotta practice and you gotta play.

“I think he’s showed that durability, both physically and mentally. Because some of those quarterbacks aren’t tough enough mentally. It’s one thing physically, because he’s strong and he’s a big guy. But mentally to go out there and have some plays go against them, but to come back and have a great practice on a Tuesday … That’s what I like about the kid.”

The Bears feel the same way. Nagy and Pace have spent years talking about “multipliers” — players that make their teammates exponentially better. It’s a fancy way to describe players that have “it.”

By any definition, the Bears see that in their new quarterback.

“That’s the part of Justin, is that he’s super mature, he’s very focused — but he’s competitive as hell,” Nagy said. “Sometimes that pushes people.”

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