SPORTS COLUMN: Life, career, of Jimmy Fields modeled unbeatable faith
The Courier Herald, "Slices of Sports" – February 17, 2021
Setting out to write a reflection on Jimmy Fields, purely from a sports perspective, is a futile exercise, because his office as coach was so inseparable from his other roles as Christ-follower, mentor, father-figure, leader and minister to those in his school and program that were equally, if not more defining, of the person he was.
For the late Trinity Christian head football coach, these functions were all intertwined, and each served the greater mission of achieving God's purpose in every area of his life. During his years of health and throughout a more recent battle with Lou Gherig's Disease, which ended at age 56 Monday afternoon, that was the one thing you couldn't miss about Coach Fields: He knew why he was here.
So in attempting to sum up his career through the lens of the sports he coached, you almost inevitably end up coming back to the faith, convictions and attitude about life that were such defining pieces of his character.
I spoke Tuesday morning to several local coaches, and one of his former players, about their memories of Coach Fields. And while they each had great things to say about him as a football coach, they each ultimately came back to his testimony as a believer, and his passion for the Gospel, that came through in their interactions as what truly inspired them.
"He was a great man of God, and he was always very excited to share that," said East Laurens head coach Bin Turner. "He was a guy that, no matter the circumstances, always gave glory to God. He knew one day when his time was over here, that he was going to have an eternal ever after with the Good Lord. It was an exciting thing."
"I don't know if he and I ever had a conversation where we didn't end up talking about the Lord," said West Laurens head coach Kagan McClain. "I will miss those talks, though they were few. I take comfort in knowing that he is no longer struggling and instead is rejoicing with his Savior. I look forward to seeing him again one day."
This column, much like any conversation with Coach Fields, ends on the subject of Jesus, but starts with football:
While he always kept things in their proper perspective, it was never lost on anyone who sat in his office for any length of time to hear him tell stories of past coaching and playing days how deeply ingrained the sport was in his life.
Coach Fields grew up in Columbus, Mississippi, a talented high school football player who made it to the college level not so much on pure talent, as much as the hard-nosed work ethic that, clearly, never left him. A nose tackle for the Ole Miss Rebels under head coach Billy Brewer, he rarely cracked the depth chart, but made it onto the field as an upperclassman, and earned a letter in 1985.
His original plan, after graduating with a business degree, was to enter the working world as part of the family business back home, though he quickly figured out his calling was as a coach. Out of college, he spent time working as grad assistants at Ole Miss under Brewer, then at Alabama under head coach Gene Stallings, before the game led him to the high school ranks, and to Georgia.
Stints as an assistant coach at Worth County, Lowndes and Dublin, under Sam Barrs, led him to his first head coaching opportunity in 1999 at Albany's Deerfield-Windsor School.
All told, he'd spend 21 seasons as a head coach at four different schools, taking over at Albany's Sherwood Christian in 2002 (after two years at Deerfield and two as an assistant again). He led the Eagles for five seasons, then spent eight years as head coach at Smyrna-based Whitefield Academy before being hired at Trinity in 2015. He was 25-39 over six years with the Crusaders, reaching the state playoffs in his first four seasons and advancing to the quarterfinal round twice.
Coach Fields' overall record in football was 97-131. He also won three region titles, two at Whitefield and one at Deerfield, where he also made his deepest playoff run to the GISA semifinals in his first season at the helm. In addition to football, he also coached a good many other sports over the years: some wrestling and track and field while at Trinity, and middle school girls basketball during his time at Whitefield.
The burly Fields, up until his health issues began to affect his mobility, lifted weights and ran with his players during summer conditioning. He was never one you'd consider laid-back. Fiery, animated and energetic on the sideline and in practice, he was demanding in his expectations, and never minced words when displeased with technique, effort or execution.
He came from the defensive side of the ball, and a school of thought that believed firmly in the importance of toughness – of body and attitude – to winning football games. He captured that in a phrase made up of two words that became his slogan: Go to WAR, and go to WIN.
"I could have never asked for a better high school football coach," said Jake Walker, who played for Trinity as a wideout and defensive back, graduating in 2019. "There was absolutely no way you could complain about a workout or a practice with Coach Fields being your head football coach because he ran every sprint with us and did every workout with us. We could have been dead tired running sprints at the end of a Monday practice after a tough Friday game. A person's natural reaction would be to complain, but we couldn’t because our head coach was outrunning over half the team.
"If we suffered, then he suffered. If we were in pain, then he was in pain. I think this is one of the main things that made me love and respect him so much as a football coach. This is a big reason that whether the world said we were big favorites or big underdogs, it didn’t matter. Most of us were ready to go to WAR on Friday night for Coach Fields and truly believed we were going to WIN."
Every defensive playbook has a "philosophy" page somewhere near the front outlining the core goals of the scheme, although the bulleted list rarely varies much for a local high school from what you'd read in that of the New England Patriots – largely because the page is a carbon copy of one handed down between coaches for ages gone by, likely tracing back to NFL great Bill Parcells.
The principles largely go without saying: Stop the run, get off the field on third down, be efficient in the red zone, force turnovers and play with unrelenting effort for four quarters. As obvious as those things seem, there's something important about establishing them at the outset, making clear what we're here to accomplish and, in general, how we aim to go about doing that.
Coach Fields was, in much the same way, very up-front about his mission in coaching. Football was a vehicle for his faith, and it was never unclear in your interactions with him – for his players and fellow coaches in football activities right down to interviews for write-ups and the radio where I got to speak with him on a somewhat regular basis – what the real point of it all was.
Make no mistake. Performing well on the field, winning the game, were important to him. But in the way he'd always bring the conversation back to the greater purpose, he'd center it on a why that related to a spiritual or life lesson to be learned for his players and even those reading or listening.
"He lived every breath not for himself, but striving to glorify the Lord in everything that he did," Walker said. "He loved, cared and believed in his players and people around him more than you could imagine. He taught us many things on the field but he definitely taught us more off the field. Whether it be about God, life, character, work ethic or the future, he continually taught us more than just a game of football."
"Coach taught us not to just be religious, but to be real, that the church isn’t a building or place but it’s a body of believers, it can even be a locker room if it needs to be, and that you can always be a witness for Christ no matter where you are or what you are doing, even if it’s hitting the guy across from you in the mouth," he added. "I'm thankful for the inspiration that coach fields was in my life and the lives of my teammates."
One of Coach Fields' favorite parts of the football calendar each year was hosting a Fellowship of Christian Athletes-sponsored 7-on-7 passing camp every summer, which brought in a mix of schools from locally and further across the state. Getting together to work on the passing game was the general purpose, but for Coach Fields, what made it so important was the opportunity to share his faith, which he got to do at length between sessions of the workouts.
"He knew he was going to have an opportunity to reach out and spread the gospel to more people," Turner said.
The last of these (the 2020 edition was cancelled due to the pandemic) was held in 2019, bringing in squads of the East Laurens Falcons and ECI Bulldogs from nearby, and Oconee County-based Prince Avenue Christian School with a freshman Brock Vandagriff (now committed to Georgia).
But bigger than any football takeaway – strides made by those teams' skill position players or defensive secondaries – was the fact that over a dozen players in attendance made decisions to commit their lives to Christ.
His unwavering faith in the face of his ALS diagnosis, and the progressing onset of the disease during the past year, is a whole separate column, which ran back at the start of the season.
The challenging circumstances attempted to remove his focus from that purpose and calling, and even more so from the work of coaching. But they weren't successful.
"I never witnessed anybody handle adversity like this with as much poise and class as Coach Fields did," said Dublin head coach Roger Holmes. "I was amazed when we all got together this year at one of our club meetings, the way he stood in front of everybody and never mentioned the illness that he had. He talked about his players and his team and his faith. Our relationship was not only professional, but I considered it to be a friendship, and have ultimate respect for him as a person as well as a coach."
Limited in his strength and use of his arms, Coach Fields continued serving in a limited teaching role at Trinity, coaching at practice every afternoon and roaming the sidelines on Friday nights the entire season. And even though the Crusaders didn't win a game in his final season, he found a way to finish the year undefeated.
And his testimony to all looking on from the stands of life, amid a year of their own struggles, was that God remains good, and remains at work.
"I didn't know him but for just a little while, but he was always very uplifting," Turner said. "He would always let you know that no matter what happens in life, what happens in football, that the Good Lord had us all in his hands and that everything would always work out the way it's supposed to."
In a world full of empty words, Coach Fields was someone who firmly believed in his message, and made certain to live it out every day he had a chance to. And what kept him excited and got his juices flowing was not merely a Friday night game, but a passion for the kingdom of God.
You could tell he was about something bigger than anything in this lifetime, and he lived like it. A coach and a man with an uncommon ability to influence those around him left an impression for the right reasons.
"(He was) one of the best men I've ever had the privilege of knowing through the game," McClain said.
Hopefully, his memory inspires us all to live a little differently ourselves, with an intensity about the here and now that comes from a focus on the greater goal of eternity. May we maintain the same tenacity through our own fourth-quarter whistle, final buzzer or finish line as Coach Fields did until his.