Mother's tough love leads to stardom for TCU freshman
Devonte Fields had pushed Arlington Martin coach Bob Wager to a breaking point.
Fields, who has started every game at defensive end for TCU during his true freshman season, is, by all accounts, the picture of a humble, devoted teammate coaches covet.
But that wasn't always the case.
It was the spring of 2010 and Wager was at the end of his rope, at a loss for a way to motivate a 15-year-old sophomore sub-varsity player, to go all in and apply himself.
"At that time he was no different than a lot of 15-year old kids," Wager said. "He was just kind of floating around. I'm looking at a kid that I have not been able to bring the best out of. I have not been able to psychologically get inside his head and get him to make a total commitment to everything he's doing -- academically, athletically -- all of it."
Wager was ready to do something he rarely does, kick someone off the team.
"I got to a point with Devonte where I've done everything I can," he said. "I've been good cop, bad cop. When I say everything, I mean everything. I've had him in my office, I've put my arm around him, I've kicked him in the rear end, I've done everything I know to do psychologically to help him."
But nothing had worked. As a last straw, Wager had a meeting with Devonte and his mother, Monica Fields, who had raised Devonte as a single parent. Wager had never met Mrs. Fields when she arrived at his office in the spring of 2010. He invited her to sit down.
"No, I prefer to stand," she said.
Uh oh. Wager knew how this was going to go.
"This is the part where you tell me I'm doing your son wrong, right?" Wager thought to himself.
Wager told Mrs. Fields that he took no pleasure in telling her that Devonte was about to be cut loose. And then he listed a litany of issues with Devonte.
"He's habitually late, he skips workouts, he has a bad attitude, he doesn't have a very good work ethic," Wager ticked off the list. "He doesn't dress the way everybody else dresses for athletics."
Instead of taking offense, Mrs. Fields turned to her son and leveled the boom as only a mother can.
"You mean to tell me that you want to play in the NFL and you can't do what your coach tells you to do?" she curtly asked her son.
Devonte began to sob like a child but was in the process of becoming a man.
"I mean I've gone up one side and down the other and nothing fazes him. I cannot pull his best out of him," Wager said. "His mother comes in my office and by the time they leave he does a 180-degree turnaround. It was tangible. You could see it, you could touch it."
The massive transformation for Fields during a 15-minute meeting with his coach and mom set in motion Martin's greatest season in 2011 and continues to drive Devonte, who has quickly become a rising star for TCU. The Frogs (6-4, 3-4 in the Big 12) and Fields play No. 16 Texas (8-2, 5-2) at 6:30 tonight at Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium in Austin.
Fields leads the Big 12 with 15 1/2 tackles for loss and is third with eight sacks. Fields leads the nation's freshmen in both categories and broke Aaron Schobel's 1997 TCU freshman record of seven sacks. He's within reach of setting freshman FBS records in sacks and tackles for loss.
"The thing that makes him special is how hard he plays," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "It's not just that he's talented. Like I told him, as long as he doesn't get entitled, thinking 'I'm better and I don't have to work as I get older,' he's going to really improve. The sky is the limit for Devonte Fields. He's one of the best we've ever had."
Fields was unavailable for an interview because Patterson doesn't allow freshmen to talk to the media. But according to teammates, chances are slim that Fields will let entitlement set in. If so, Patterson knows who to call.
"The moral to the story is never underestimate the power of mom," Wager said. "Reach out and get a hold of mom. You want to see what makes him tick? Put his mother in the room with him."
It's one of Wager's all-time favorite stories, and one he told an audience of 600 at the Arlington ISD Founders' Banquet last year. He had invited Monica Fields as his guest. When he introduced Mrs. Fields after telling the story, she received a standing ovation.
"It felt great. All the love and support we received as a single parent makes me speechless," she said. "There's not enough words to say thank you."
Her son's fast rise at TCU is surprising for mom and Wager. But both knew he had the character to go with the talent ever since that meeting.
"Nobody expected that," she said. "But I never expected my son to be a heavily recruited football player and go to college. That was a blessing in and of itself. It was just a matter of reality finally setting in. This wasn't junior high or pee wee. You're not the only good athlete here. You have to prove yourself."
The meeting before his junior season at Martin changed Fields' behavior more than just on the football field. He became a captain, a team leader and eventually became one of the top recruits in the nation. He spends holidays with the Wagers and routinely returns to Martin to help kids realize life is not a dress rehearsal.
"When he decided to flip the switch inside of his head, he never looked back," said Wager, who has been coaching since 1992 and the head coach at Martin since 2006. "From being just another guy that was out there to a guy who was first in the line for every drill. That became contagious and we credit that as much as anything for the development and success of our program. When your best athletes are also your hardest workers, the guys that follow? They have nowhere else to turn."
A year ago this weekend, Martin defeated Euless Trinity in the area round playoffs, one of the biggest wins in the school's history. Fans stormed Pennington Field. Wager was being mobbed, hugging and high-fiving players, coaches and fans. He searched for his 7-year-old son, Gage, to celebrate the moment with him.
"I finally look through this sea of people and he's playing catch with Devonte," Wager said. "It's like two minutes after the game is over. Everybody is going berserk. That's what I'm talking about. That's the good stuff. That's when this job is really fun."