Fields wins game of inches with the Colts

June 23, 1994|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,Sun Staff Writer

He's the man in the middle, holding down a position that demands brains as well as brawn.

Apparently, to make a living as a linebacker in the NFL, Earnest Fields also needed height, the one area where he fell short.

Considered too small for the NFL at 5 feet 11, Fields has turned to the Canadian Football League.

A workout with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers opened the door, and it led to a chance to play in Baltimore, for a coach who will take Fields just the way he is, at a muscular 240 pounds and with a nose for the ball.

"His credentials speak for themselves," said Don Matthews, who is preparing his CFL Colts for tomorrow night's exhibition opener in Shreveport, La., where Fields likely will start at middle linebacker. "With his ability, if he was three inches taller, he'd probably be in the NFL, doing all the same things he's always done.

"He's the type of player we always find. We're not concerned with his lack of height as much as his ability to make plays. And he certainly has that ability. He's good enough to play in any league. He should be the leading tackler on our team."

It wouldn't be the first time.

Fields played 48 games at Tennessee, where he ranks as the Volunteers' third all-time leading tackler with 407, including 116 as a senior in 1991. He had 140 tackles (93 solo) as a junior, led the Vols in fumbles caused (three) and fumbles recovered (four), and was named second-team All-Southeastern Conference.

Of his 407 stops, 258 were first hits. He always could stuff the run. And he made three interceptions as

a sophomore, showing that he had the quickness and agility to drop back in pass coverage.

Even so, Fields never caught on with an NFL team. He came close two years ago, when he lasted through all four preseason games with the Detroit Lions. Coaches raved about his play, practically assuring him that he had won a spot on the roster. Then, they cut him.

"I had it in my head that I had made the team," he said.

"It was real tough when I got released, because I had played so well and had so much positive feedback. That really hurt."

Fields, 25, went to minicamp with Cleveland in 1993, but left without a job when the Browns decided instead to sign a tight end, former Denver Bronco Clarence Kay.

Three months ago, Fields found himself in Winnipeg, fighting to keep his football career alive. On the night after his first workout, he drove to his home in Knoxville, Tenn., picked up a friend and immediately headed to South Carolina, where he had an 8 a.m. appointment with Colts personnel staff.

"I did really good at that camp, and I guess they were pleased with what they saw," Fields said. "I didn't think I'd perform well because I had about an hour's sleep, but I was pumped for it."

If Fields hadn't earned a place with the Colts, he could have taken another crack at the NFL. But he couldn't stand the thought of failing again and spending another year out of football.

"I felt like this was basically my last chance," he said.

He's making the most of it.

"It's hard to find something wrong with him right now. He's very smart, and he makes a lot of plays," said Jim Popp, Colts director of player personnel.

"If you look at the guys in the NFL and look at him, you wonder why he isn't playing there. Three inches is keeping him out of the NFL."

Fields said he expected some difficulty in adapting to the CFL's style of play, but was relieved to discover that "when you're out there, the field doesn't seem like it's any wider or longer. You just play football."

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