Have you ever considered what it takes for a great athlete to perform at the rate that they do? The amount of physical and mental strain they endure throughout the year? The constant battle to push themselves farther than their last challenging game or intense workout? Unless you’re an athlete yourself, or you know one personally, many of these questions may very well never cross your mind. What I found, however, is that asking those questions more often than not gives way to some incredibly inspiring stories.
My most recent encounter with inspiration came in the form of an interview with Howard University linebacker, Leon Fields, II. I had the opportunity to connect with Fields for a brief moment at the close of he and his teammates’ 12th day of training camp. To the 6’2 245-pound college senior, the day had been like any other day of camp. The team had spent the better part of August performing a balancing act that included weightlifting, position drills, yoga, and team meetings.
This demanding training regimen is more than likely what the Bison can attribute to the success they observed last season. Howard University’s football team caught the attention of the media, as well as their competitors, in the Fall of 2017 with a series of victories they hadn’t observed for quite some time. By mid-season, it became clear that the dramatic shift in the coaching staff, including the introduction of Mike London as head coach, was what brought the Bison football team up from out the ashes of several disappointing seasons.
Someone who knows all too well the amount of work the Bison put in last season to make the team a stronger force on the field is Leon Fields. After three seasons with the team, Fields has witnessed a series of changes in everything from team management to team dynamics. After observing the success of last season, he’s determined to make his final year as a Howard Bison one for the books as he pursues his goal of making it to the NFL Combine.
The NCAA reports that there are currently 73,063 football players participating in its organization, and of that 1.6% make it to major professional sports. And while the odds seem stacked against most collegiate players, every year gives way to a new crop of athletes that stand apart from the rest. They train hard, play hard, and go hard for the love of football. When an athlete of that caliber collides with Howard University’s D1 football team, which has developed over 20 NFL players thus far, the world is given players like Fields.
The towering athlete found a seat in a slightly worn down couch located in the common area of his dorm, his red athletic shirt soaked with sweat from a rigorous day of training in DC’s August heat. Despite spending his day in the trenches running drills, Leon possessed a natural air of professionalism, as well as a remarkable amount of passion for the game of football.
The first-generation college student and former entrepreneur was born and raised in North Charleston, South Carolina, where he and his younger sister were raised by their parents. “I grew up in a one bedroom house with my parents and my sister, but I watched both of them work hard to get me and my sister into better neighborhoods and school systems. It was inspiring to see how determined they were.”
Growing up in a city with one of the highest violent crime rates in the nation, Fields and his sister were encouraged to use sports as a vehicle to expose them to greater opportunities- opportunities that their neighborhood could not offer. And when he and his family made their move to a better neighborhood, they continued to encourage their kids to embrace sports. “My parents were a major influence when it came to me and my sister playing sports,” Fields said. “They left it up to us to decide what our extracurricular activity would be, but they made it clear we were going to be active and involved.”
Fields chose to embrace his natural athleticism and played football, baseball, and basketball throughout childhood and well into high school. And while he’d successfully mastered the art of being the ultimate athlete in multiple sports, it was always football that held a first place amongst the contenders.
Field’s decision to play football yielded a series of life-changing opportunities for the young athlete, including the opportunity to attend Howard University. However, while offers to play for Howard and several other University’s came in, higher education wasn’t always a part of his master plan. “I fell in love with entrepreneurship in high school,” Fields stated. “I had a passion for sneakers, and didn’t always have the money to get the shoes I wanted. I saw an opportunity there so I started buying sneakers when I could, I’d wear them a few times, and then I would sell them at a higher markup.”
Business for the then high schooler started to boom. Fields suddenly found himself running an international operation and dealing with managing the scale of his operation. “I eventually started doing sneaker customization and restoration, and suddenly orders are coming in from everywhere,” he said. “I’d be in homeroom calculating the time it would take to ship sneakers to a customer in Indonesia. It was a lot of late nights – I didn’t really party that much in high school. I’d be up some nights until 4 am, just me and the dog, trying to figure out how to get a handle on marketing and handling orders.”
And while he had found success running his own business, Fields’s mother knew that his talent for football was the key to a college degree. “Once offers started coming in my mother stepped in and encouraged me to go to school,” he said. “I’d received several offers, which I also viewed as free opportunities to earn a college degree. My mother always pushed for Howard though because of what I’d be exposed to on and off the field.” His mother knew that the offer to learn and play football at one of the most elite HBCU’s among the 100+ historically black institutions in the United States was one that her son couldn’t pass up.
Fields joined Howard University’s incoming class of freshmen in the Fall of 2015, and as he matriculated through his first year of college, he was hit with some difficult news. “I spent my freshmen year getting acclimated on the field and with my team, and at the end of that year I found out that my parents were getting a divorce,” Fields told me. “Working through that definitely affected my performance the following year. I was playing but wasn’t making the amount of impact that I wanted to. I just wasn’t focused.”
By his Junior year, he and his teammates had found themselves in a transitional period. The major overhaul in team leadership, however, proved to be what the team needed; the Bison garnered a 7-4 record last season. “By Junior year the team had lost its love for football, including me,” Fields said. “But once it became evident that our new coaching staff was dedicated to our development, everyone started to perform on another level. You almost felt disrespectful letting yourself become distracted from football, especially when we saw the coaches were grinding for us.”
As for the 2018 season, Fields registered four tackles in a disappointing 38-32 season-opening loss against the Ohio University Bobcats. “I’ve got tunnel vision right now and I’m just focused on the upcoming season,” he said. “If I focus on what’s in front of me, everything else is going to line up. I want to learn my craft, know the playbook like the back of my hand, know where everyone is in defense – so I can get them aligned, get them adjusted. I’m a part of a team so I’m not really thinking about just me.”
And with his sights set on having a great final season, Fields is also focused on earning a coveted invitation to the NFL Combine next year. “It’s not something that’s just going to come my way. I know I have to work toward it, make it known that that’s what I want,” Fields said. “There’s another level of responsibility that’s put on you when that happens. I’m looking at game footage thinking about how would I break this down to a scout to showcase my understanding of the game, I’m studying my position and the positions of my teammates- I just want to know the game inside and out. It’s crucial for a player to understand everything and make their intentions to go pro clear, especially coming from a small school, ”
I’d pursued this interview because I knew that Fields was in a position that a substantial number of college football players, especially those from HBCU’s, could relate. They were all hungry for the opportunity to prove themselves and demonstrate their ability to succeed as professional athletes. I found myself taken aback, however, because while he was very vocal about his desire to play pro football after graduation, he’d focused his attention and a considerable amount of his interview on his team. I wondered if every player was as humble and team-oriented as Fields, or if he was just cut from a different cloth.
Only time will tell where his talent will take him, but after this interview, I have no doubt that Fields will find success no matter what route he chooses to take at the end of his journey at Howard University. With that in mind, it only seems right to bring things to a close with the inspiring words that Fields used to end his interview.
“I want people to not see Leon Fields, but instead see the hand of God on my life,” he said. “I want to be seen as more of a vessel because the things that I’m going to do in my lifetime will change the world. I’m certain of that.”
Kadeem Pilgrim is currently an MBA student at Howard University and received his undergraduate degree in Marketing from Hampton University.