One graduate’s yellow tassel swung from her cap as she danced across the stadium field with her diploma. Another member of the Ohio State University’s Class of 2023 pumped her arms in jubilation, scarlet tassel bouncing.
Behind them, Justin Fields approached midfield from the north end zone. He’d undoubtedly spent more time on this field than either of them. But instead of winding up for another one of the 579 passes he attempted as a Buckeye, this time Fields clutched a different leather in his right hand. The case was red.
Inside it, a diploma announced: The Ohio State University hereby confers upon 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 complete his degree “as soon as I could.” Via 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 dad.”
Bears colleagues reflected on Fields’ commitment amid his professional responsibilities and limelight.
“He’s got this football organization, this team, this city, all the eyes are on him,” offensive coordinator Luke Getsy told Yahoo Sports. “The fact that he was able to make sure to take some time and he felt that it was important to get that degree, it shows the kind of guy he is and the kind of discipline he has — the kind of focus that he has on accomplishing things that are important to him.”
How Justin Fields completed his degree
It would have felt different, Bears team president Kevin Warren said, were the ceremony in the Buckeyes’ basketball arena or 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 straight College Football Playoff berth and, this time, the championship game.
So it wasn’t long ago that Fields was leading victories over the likes of Wisconsin and Penn State on this turf. Nor was it long ago that Warren was in attendance for Fields’ athletic feats. On May 7, now in his new position at the Bears' front office, he was again present as Fields was introduced with his peers.
“Will Donald Pope-Davis, Dean of the College of Education and Human Ecology, and candidates for degrees in the College of Education and Human Ecology, please rise and remain standing?” executive vice president and provost Melissa Gilliam announced.
Fields’ candidacy began in earnest on Jan. 4, 2019 when the then-Georgia Bulldogs quarterback announced that he had “decided to transfer to Ohio State University where I will continue to pursue my undergraduate degree and play football for the Buckeyes.”
Over the next two years, Fields would throw for 5,373 yards, 63 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. He rushed for another 867 yards and 15 scores.
Concurrently, Fields completed coursework detailing how people and businesses analyze complex financial concepts, data and policies. He enjoyed his entrepreneurship and statistics classes most. And when he announced Jan. 18, 2021 that he was foregoing his senior year to enter the NFL Draft, the athletic department’s 27-year-old degree completion program was ready to serve its purpose.
Fields applied for and was accepted to 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 Ohio State’s student athlete support services office, said academic advisers guide program members to first prioritize classes that require in-person attendance. That reduces barriers to degree completion for students like Fields, who completed his requirements entirely online after foregoing his eligibility.
“Your body is only as good for as long as it can be good, right? That is part of the reality of being a professional athlete,” King, also a senior associate athletic director, told Yahoo Sports. “So if this is the moment in time where your body’s ready to be in that event, go do it. Let’s protect your brain. Let’s take care of that. And we’ll be here for you.
“We want you to finish when it makes sense in your life experience.”
Fields became the 99th football player to graduate via Ohio State’s degree completion program, the 25th in the last decade. Across all sports, 241 athletes have completed their degrees through the program since its 1994 inception.
King said Fields’ quick finish felt “almost like he never left, and I think that momentum was able to carry him.” Fields nonetheless paused classes during his two NFL seasons.
“Took all classes during the offseason,” he said, “so I didn’t have to worry about balancing with the preparations that come during the season.”
‘Another data point as to who Justin Fields is’
Even commencement celebrations were efficient. The ceremony began at noon. Fields strolled off the field armed with his diploma just before 3:30 p.m. Photos with family members followed, a student-athlete stole draped around Fields’ neck.
“Touchdowns are cool,” Fields’ father, Pablo, captioned a photo of them at commencement, “but this will make a father proud.”
Touchdowns are cool, but this will make a father proud 🙌🏽🙏🏽 pic.twitter.com/w4LAGcKJ5q
— Pablo Fields (@snooka55) May 8, 2023
Fields and Warren boarded a 6:15 p.m. flight back to Chicago.
“He wanted to get back to Chicago so he could get to Halas Hall on Monday for his offseason training and preparation for the season,” Warren said. “To be able to watch him operate and how business-like he was and excited and to see his family, but then for him to get on a plane within three hours after he received his diploma to get back to Chicago to go to work?
“Those are the kind of individuals that you win world championships with — that you win a lot of football games with.”
A world championship this season feels unlikely for the Bears, whose 3-14 record was worst in the NFL last season. And yet, Fields’ individual trajectory is pointing up. His passer efficiency rating increased from 31st (73.2) to 25th (85.2) in his second professional year. He rebounded from the 55 sacks he took (tied for most in league), creating his own plays amid shallow weapons and shoddy protection. No player bested Fields’ 7.1 yards per carry, his 1,143 rushing yards also seventh-most in league. And no other quarterback even glimpsed that realm, runner-ups 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 anew at quarterback, with the benefit of more salary cap-friendly rookie contract years. Instead, they doubled down on their belief in Fields and traded the pick to the Carolina Panthers, netting No. 1 wide receiver D.J. Moore in the exchange. The Bears upgraded their offensive line talent, too, signing guard Nate Davis in free agency and drafting tackle Darnell Wright with the 10th overall pick.
Getsy is excited about the steps Fields will take, the protection adjustments and defensive diagnoses that are coming more naturally as Fields enters his second year in this offense.
His degree is complete; professional goals, far from it.
And yet, Bears colleagues view Fields’ graduation as emblematic of the commitment he shows to all endeavors, team included. “Just another data point as to who Justin Fields is,” Warren says, “and what makes him so very special.”
Fields is also another data point for NFL players, including quarterbacks and first-rounders, considering whether to complete their degrees while playing professionally. His message to those considering?
“If it’s a goal of yours, just make sure you get it done,” Fields said. “And try to get it done while you’re younger.”