Tuesday, September 27, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Former Red Devil making good on a second chance

Leader sports editor

Saturday was more than a homecoming for former Jacksonville Red Devil Anthony Fields. When his team, Trinity Valley Community College from Athens, Texas, played Arkansas Baptist College at Little Rock’s Quigley Stadium, it was more of a triumphant return – proof of Fields’ turnaround from the lovable goof-off who almost blew the opportunity his talent afforded him, to the hard working and studious defensive lineman now garnering attention from Division I football programs.

Coaches and fans knew by the time Fields was in ninth grade he possessed rare talent on the football field. They also knew he was in constant danger of throwing it all away. By the end of his sophomore year, it looked like he had.

Fields was academically ineligible and was not allowed to play his junior year, the year most college prospects make themselves known to college coaches.

Instead of giving up, Fields decided to make that year the beginning of his turnaround.

“Not playing that year, it was just like a light switched on in my head and I knew this wasn’t funny anymore. I was just kind of there. I was just cool with everybody and everybody loved me. I just wasn’t taking care of business, always joking around. Everybody was passing, and here I was, back there goofing off. I just realized I had to get my act together.”

Fields wasn’t even almost eligible after his sophomore year, and it took lots of make up work and summer school to become eligible for his senior campaign. But he was way behind in the recruiting process, and his name wasn’t out there. By season’s end, no offers had come forth. Late in the school year, Trinity Valley Community College took notice ofFields on film, and invited him to the Athens campus for a visit.

TVCC head coach Brad Smiley was impressed.

“In Texas, we can only have 10 guys from out of state, so you have to be really something for us to give you one of those spots,” Smiley said. “When you look at some of the other guys we’ve had here from out of state, you see that real quick. Jarrod Evans was one of them that just set the touchdown record at Virginia Tech. Derrick Willey is breaking receiving records at Texas Tech. Davonte Fields is going to be the ACC defensive player of the year at Louisville, the No. 2 outside backer on Mel Kiper’s draft board. So we’re very picky about who gets those 10 spots, and Anthony meets the criteria.”

TVCC is currently ranked No. 8 in the nation in JUCO, and has led all junior colleges in Division I signees in four of the last five years. The Cardinals began this season at No. 3, and spent one week at No. 1 before losing 30-29 to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M.

The competition is fierce, especially for the out-of-state players. Smiley recounts a story from offseason that involved Fields and a teammate, that speaks to the JHS alum’s current mindset.

“In camp, I had to sit him down with a big old offensive lineman who had some big time FBS offers, and just tell them, hey look guys. The way things are working out (with the out-of-state roster spots) per position, you guys are battling to get one of those last two spots going into this last scrimmage game. And I tell you what, all Anthony did was go out and become better. He proved to me, hey, you can’t not have me on this team. The other guy just bolted. Couldn’t handle it. Those Big 10 and Big 12 schools that offered him, they were asking me where this guy went. I just told them, you know what, got a guy here that just straight beat him out.”

Fields’ talent was on display on Saturday for the many family members, friends and former teammates and coaches that went to see him play.

The Cardinals annihilated Arkansas Baptist, leading 56-12 at halftime and winning 63-18. Fields finished with four tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack and one quarterback hurry.

“He’s very quick, very explosive,” Smiley said. “Last week we had a couple of DI coaches at our practice, and afterwards one of them came in and said, ‘coach, who is No. 56? They can’t block him on the pass rush.’ That’s his forte right now. There are a few things we’re still working on with him in the run game, using his hands and learning that technique. But that’s all he needs to become a dominant player.”

Smiley wasn’t aware of the severity of Fields’ academic difficulties in high school, but he has seen part of the maturing process.

“I’ll be honest with you, he farted around a little bit his first semester here, too,” Smiley said. “He learned a lesson from that and he’s gotten serious about academics and that’s going to be huge for him on the back end. If you’re not academically eligible (for Division I) coming out of high school, you have to get your associates degree before you can play DI football. With the way he’s excelling in the classroom now, that’s huge because everybody is looking for defensive linemen. That’s a position that everybody always needs, so it could be a great situation for him.”

Fields, the son of Michelle and Gregory Fields, redshirted his first year at TVCC, and then suffered a setback when he broke his wrist in fall camp. He was able to recover and play in the first game this season, but aggravated the injury in the season opener and missed the next two games. He returned the week before playing Arkansas Baptist, and forced a fumble in a big win over Blinn College.

Jacksonville coach Barry Hickingbotham took over the Red Devil program Fields’ senior year. He and former assistant Brian McDermott drove Fields to his visit to TVCC.

“I’m just so proud of him because he was able to do what so many kids don’t do,” said Hickingbotham. “With him, like with most of them, it’s not an ability problem. It’s a motivation problem. Too many of them never get that. Anthony figured it out and changed his direction. He was going the wrong way and he recognized it. His ability got him a second chance, and he was smart enough to start doing what he had to do to take advantage of that. I always felt like he was a DI talent, and he’s on his way.”

Fields is not all about football. A lifelong musician who began playing piano and singing in church at about 12 years old, he performed with the TVCC concert choir last spring.

“They gave me a little scholarship money to do that,” Fields said. “I played piano for them and sang a little bit. I probably won’t be able to do that this year. Last year I was redshirting and spring semester isn’t as demanding. But I’m going to be focusing so much on football this year, I won’t be able to do it.”

He’s majoring in Kinesiology and wants to become a coach once his playing days are finished, whether that means after graduation or a possible professional career. He now carries a 2.7 accumulative grade-point average, and that’s only because of the lackluster first semester. He’s been above 3.0 the last two semesters.

At the end of this semester, he will be 15 hours from his associate’s degree, and could be moving on if the right offer comes through.

Texas Tech is currently the only FBS school showing serious interest in the 6-foot, 270-pounder, but Division I schools like Alabama-Birmingham, North Texas and Texas State are also interested.

If the right offer doesn’t come, Fields plans on staying in Athens.

“My dream is, I’ve always wanted to be a Razorback,” Fields said. “They haven’t showed any interest yet. I want a big-time offer. If I don’t get it this year, I’m staying at Valley and I’ll be able to take some electives and get ahead in the classroom.”