NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Ohio State vs Wisconsin
USATSI

It's not that Justin Fields never thought of opting out. The option was always there for the Ohio State quarterback, who may eventually become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

He was trying to wait out the Big Ten itself before coming to that conclusion.

"Usually the timeline in declaring for the draft is in [January]," Fields said Friday during a Zoom call with reporters. "I knew I had a lot of time. I wasn't really in a rush. I was just trying to see how it played out and hoping the Big Ten would change their decision."

On Wednesday, the Big Ten did change their decision, opting to play this fall. That ended more than just anxiousness surrounding football in the Rust Belt. With players all over the country opting out, Fields was being watched closely.

He was the key to whatever Ohio State would achieve this season. Going into the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson last year, Fields had completed one of the most efficient campaigns by a quarterback in the last 11 years.

That season -- his first as a starter -- ended with a disappointing two-interception effort in a loss to the Tigers. This week, Fields described the utter joy in seeing the Buckeyes go 11-on-11 again in practice.

"I don't think there are words to describe how determined I am," Fields said.

Part of that determination comes from being a leader of the #WeWantToPlay movement. A MoveOn.org petition started by Fields advocating a start to the season has gotten more than 302,000 signatures.

"I definitely think it had an effect [on the Big Ten returning to play]," Fields said. "I don't think it was the only thing that had an effect on it. If it didn't end up having an effect, I don't really care cause -- at the end of the day -- we all got what we wanted. I was doing what I could to get the season back."

For that alone, Fields might be considered a legendary Ohio State figure. In Ryan Day's first full season, he led the Buckeyes to a Big Ten title and that playoff berth.

Without the fall restart, we likely would have already seen the last college snap taken by Fields. When the Big Ten's reconsideration came, two of Fields' teammates -- cornerback Shaun Wade and offensive lineman Wyatt Davis Jr. -- had already opted out. Both have since expressed a desire to return.

In addition, Big Ten stars Rashod Bateman (Minnesota wide receiver) and Micah Parsons (Penn State linebacker) had left to prepare for the draft as well.

But with Fields never having formally left, the Buckeyes are loaded to make a run beginning five weeks from now.

"One reason was I wasn't really trying to rush anything [was] in case this situation did pop up. Another reason was I wanted to give myself an opportunity to come back and show the world what I can do and what I've improved on," Fields said.

"The brotherhood is real. Seeing a lot of different players opting out, I'm not saying they don't love their teammates. They might have different situations going on at home. I think with Shaun [and Wyatt] coming back shows you guys how much love there is on this team."

With Fields -- and the Buckeyes -- the 2020 season is enhanced. Ohio State is the class of the Big Ten much like Oklahoma in the Big 12 and Clemson in the ACC. There is that much of a separation between the Buckeyes and the rest of the conference.

The Big Ten's return was wrapped in those Ohio State desires. Day loudly and publicly proclaimed his desire to play this fall. Maybe that had something to do with the Big Ten coming back, too.

The 41-year-old coach has led Ohio State for all of 17 games, only one full season. But his influence now is undeniable. Ohio State has access to football, the playoff and whatever championship lies at the end of this convoluted season.

None of it starts without Fields.

"Take away all the football stuff he's done," Fields said of his coach. "Regardless of that, he's an amazing person. He really cares about us. … He was telling us just the other day there's rollers coasters, there's lows, but it always doesn't stay low. We were all at a very low point. … We had faith in him, and eventually it [paid off]."