Justin Fields doesn't need to play another snap of college football.
If the NFL draft happened today, Ohio State's QB1 would almost certainly be a top-five pick.
Billed as a generational quarterback talent since high school, Fields needed just one season as a starter at the college level to back up the rave reviews as he turned in one of the most dominant and efficient passing seasons in Ohio State history, earning himself a trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Fields threw for 3,273 yards on just 354 attempts – even more efficient than Dwayne Haskins the year before – and an absurd 41-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, which is the most impressive ratio in college football history. He finished the season with a 181.4 quarterback rating, the best in program history from a full-time starter.
He's done more than enough to secure his status as one of the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft. To be frank, he's just a few months from a payday worth tens of millions.
Few would have blamed him if he moved to protect that draft stock amid a global pandemic and an uncertain season. He could have opted out to prepare for the NFL like Penn State's Micah Parsons, Purdue's Rondale Moore or Minnesota's Rashod Bateman, or left the team once the Big Ten postponed the season to the spring.
But Fields is not doing that. In fact, he's doing the exact opposite.
For the past few weeks, Fields has made it abundantly clear that he's not ready for his Ohio State career to come to a close.
Though he easily could have had one foot out the door this entire offseason, Fields has instead been leading the charge for college football players wanting to play this upcoming season.
He's sent a flurry of Tweets to make his stance clear, helped lead a push for a college football players association with hopes of saving the season, collected hundreds of thousands of signatures on a petition for Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren to reinstate the fall season, and appeared on ESPN Radio to discuss his fight to save the season.
And his intentions are not selfish. If the football season is canceled, Fields – a guaranteed millionaire – will be just fine. He knows that. But he's also fighting for the players who need this season, the guys who worked hard and battled injuries to have one final shot – guys like Jonathon Cooper, Justin Hilliard or Trey Sermon.
“The guys that have come back for their fifth year, coming back off of injury, I think we owe it to those guys the most,” Fields said. “I’ve just seen behind the scenes all the work that they’ve put in and how much they really care about it, and I also believe all the coaches and all the players’ parents want us to play, and they’re also safe with the guidelines Ohio State has set.”
All that fight from a player whose football future is already secured.
Theres been too much work put in!! #WeWantToPlay— Justin Fields (@justnfields) August 10, 2020
But even for Fields personally, the season is about more than money, and more than his NFL draft stock. He made that clear when he told the media he never even considered opting out of the fall college football season.
“I feel like people really have different situations on whether they should opt out or not,” Fields said in early August, before the Big Ten's postponement. “Some people’s families might not be as financially stable as others, but me growing up as a kid, I’ve always been a competitor. I’ve always just loved to play football. Growing up with my family, I never really needed anything. I think my family has provided me with everything I’ve needed. So getting to the money as fast as I can isn’t really a priority for me.”
In Fields' eyes, this college football season was not just another required step towards the NFL or an eventual payday, it was a chance to finish some unfinished business. It was a chance to win a Heisman Trophy, a chance to win a national championship, a chance to "beat the brakes off" Michigan, one more time.
That's why when he called his father, Pablo, to tell him the news that the Big Ten season was postponed, there was unmistakable sorrow in his voice.
“My son is always upbeat and positive, but in our conversation that day he was heartbroken,” Pablo told SI.com. “I don’t think he wants to be done being a college football player. We’re not rich by any means, but he’s not in a hurry to get the dollars. He loves Ohio State University and loves his teammates, and he has some unfinished business he’d like to complete.”
But the unfortunate truth is, no matter how hard he fights, he just might not get the chance to handle that unfinished business.
It's quite unlikely the Big Ten will reverse course and reinstate the fall season at this point, and a spring season will likely be a shell of a season that would bring on plenty of practical and logistical concerns for an NFL draft prospect.
Want it more than ever... pic.twitter.com/Hx9C7sMJPl— Justin Fields (@justnfields) August 14, 2020
The league reportedly has a plan to adjust its league calendar to move its combine and draft to accommodate a spring college football season, but even if that happens, it still might not make sense for a high first-round pick to play and risk injury. Plus, this is all assuming a spring season turns out to be feasible anyway, which is far from a given.
Fields and his father both maintain he isn't in a hurry to get that NFL paycheck, but the reality is that a life-changing amount of money is on the horizon, and it would be very difficult to justify doing anything that could put that in jeopardy.
For that reason, there's a very, very real chance Justin Fields has played his last game in a Buckeye uniform. It's not the way he wanted his college career to end or the way Ohio State fans wanted to send out the player who might very well be the best quarterback in program history, but it could be the imminent reality.
But that's not going to stop Fields from fighting. And if this is how his Buckeye career comes to a close, then that is how he should be remembered – as a fighter. He should be remembered as a player who battled like hell for his teammates, for the fans, and for the future of college football, until the very end.
If he goes out, he's going to go out swinging. And while that's not the same as a national title, a Heisman Trophy or a 100-spot on Michigan, it's still a damn fine legacy to leave.