A graduate’s yellow tassel swung from her cap as she danced across the stadium field with her diploma. Another member of Ohio State University’s Class of 2023 pumped her arms in jubilation as the scarlet tassels bounced back and forth.
Behind them, Justin Fields approached center field from the north end zone. No doubt he had spent more time on this field than either of them. But instead of making another one of the 579 passes he attempted as Buckeye, this time Fields grabbed another leather in his right hand. The case was red.
In it, a diploma announced: The Ohio State University hereby awards Justin Skyler Fields the degree of Bachelor of Science in Human Ecology.
The Chicago Bears starting quarterback has completed his degree in consumer and family financial services.
Fields knew when the Bears selected him in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, 11th overall, that he wanted to finish college as soon as possible. Through online classes during the past two offseasons, he now has.
“It meant a lot,” Fields told Yahoo Sports, “especially with the promise I made to my father.”
Bears colleagues reflected on Fields’ commitment amid his professional responsibilities and spotlight.
“He has this football organization, this team, this city, all eyes are on him,” offensive coordinator Luke Getsy told Yahoo Sports. “The fact that he was able to make sure he took some time and he felt it was important to get that degree shows what kind of man he is and what kind of discipline he has – the kind of focus he has on getting things done that are important to him.”
How Justin Fields completed his studies
It would have felt different, said Kevin Warren, president of the Bears team, if the ceremony had been in the Buckeyes basketball arena or in a campus auditorium.
But on the football field?
“Surreal,” Warren told Yahoo Sports.
Warren was named Big Ten Commissioner in 2019 just as Fields was preparing to start his first game for Ohio State. After Warren’s term officially began in 2020, Fields led the Buckeyes to a second consecutive College Football Playoff berth and, this time, the championship game.
So it wasn’t that long ago that Fields had victories over Wisconsin and Penn State, among others, on this turf. It also wasn’t long ago that Warren was on hand for Fields’ athletic performance. On May 7, now in his new role in the Bears’ front office, he was again present when Fields was introduced to his colleagues.
“Will Donald Pope-Davis, Dean of the College of Education and Human Ecology, and College of Education and Human Ecology Diploma Candidates, Please Rise and Stand?” executive vice president and provost Melissa Gilliam announced.
Fields’ candidacy began in earnest on January 4, 2019 when the then-Georgia Bulldogs quarterback announced that he had “decided to transfer to Ohio State University where I will continue to earn my undergraduate degree and play football for the Buckeyes.”
Over the next two years, Fields threw for 5,373 yards, 63 touchdowns, and just nine interceptions. He rushed for another 867 yards and 15 scores.
At the same time, Fields completed courses describing how people and businesses analyze complex financial concepts, data, and policies. He enjoyed his lessons in entrepreneurship and statistics the most. And when he announced on Jan. 18, 2021, that he was forgoing his senior year to enter the NFL Draft, the athletic department’s 27-year-old finishing program was poised to serve its purpose.
Fields applied and were accepted into the program that serves student-athletes who are within 30 semester hours of graduation and have a cumulative GPA of at least 2.0.
Kacy King, the executive director of the Ohio State Student Athlete Support Office, said academic advisors guide program members to prioritize classes that require in-person attendance first. That reduces barriers to earning a degree for students like Fields, who completed his requirements entirely online after waiving eligibility.
“Your body is only as good as long as it can be good, right? That’s part of the reality of being a professional athlete,” King, also a senior associate athletic director, told Yahoo Sports. “So if this is the time when your body is ready to be in that event, then do it.” Let’s protect your brain. Let’s take care of that. And we’ll be there for you.
“We want you to be ready when it makes sense in your life experience.”
Fields became the 99th football player to graduate through Ohio State’s completion program, the 25th in the past decade. Across all sports, 241 athletes have graduated through the program since its inception in 1994.
King said Fields’ fast finish felt “almost like he never left, and I think that momentum could carry him.” Fields nevertheless interrupted classes during his two NFL seasons.
“I took all the off-season classes,” he said, “so I didn’t have to worry about balancing with the preparations that come during the season.”
‘Another data point on who Justin Fields is’
Even launch celebrations were efficient. The ceremony started at noon. Just before 3:30 p.m., Fields sauntered off the field armed with his diploma. Photos with family members followed, a student-athlete stole draped around Fields’ neck.
“Touchdowns are cool,” Fields’ dad, Pablo, captioned a photo of them at the beginning, “but this will make a dad proud.”
Fields and Warren boarded a flight back to Chicago at 6:15 p.m.
“He wanted to go back to Chicago so he could go to Halas Hall on Monday for his off-season training and pre-season training,” said Warren. “To be able to watch him work and how corporate and excited he was and see his family, but then get on a plane within three hours of graduating and go back to Chicago to work?
“Those are the kind of individuals you win world championships with – you win a lot of football games with.”
A world championship this season feels unlikely for the Bears, whose 3-14 record last season was the worst in the NFL. And yet Fields’ individual trajectory points upwards. His passing efficiency rating rose from 31st (73.2) to 25th (85.2) in his second professional year. He recovered from the 55 sacks he grabbed (tied for most in the league), creating his own moves amid shallow guns and shoddy protection. No player beat Fields’ 7.1 yards per carry, his 1,143 rushing yards also seventh in the league. And no other quarterback even caught a glimpse of that realm, runners-up Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen rushing for 764 and 762 yards, respectively.
The Bears could have opted to use the first overall draft pick this spring to start again at quarterback, with the benefit of more salary cap-friendly rookie contract years. Instead, they doubled their faith in Fields and traded the pick to the Carolina Panthers, bringing in No. 1 wide receiver DJ Moore in the trade. The Bears also improved their offensive line talent by signing guard Nate Davis on free duty and drafting Darnell Wright with the 10th overall pick.
Getsy is excited about the steps Fields will take, the protection adjustments and defensive diagnoses that are becoming more natural as Fields enters his second year in this offense.
His degree is complete; professional goals, far from it.
And yet, Bears colleagues see Fields’ graduation as a symbol of the dedication he shows to all endeavors, including the team. “Just another fact about who Justin Fields is,” says Warren, “and what makes him so special.”
Fields is also another data point for NFL players, including quarterbacks and first-rounders, who are considering getting their degree while playing professionally. His message to those who consider?
“If it’s a goal of yours, make sure you get it done,” Fields said. “And try to get it done while you’re younger.”