Pat Fitzgerald said the news hit him out of left field — no pun intended.
Sophomore running back Arby Fields had just told the Wildcats’ head football coach that he was leaving Northwestern and putting the football and baseball programs in Evanston behind him. Fields, a rare two-sport college athlete who had hoped to be a cornerstone of the Wildcats’ backfield, had just finished a disappointing 2010 season when he decided to leave NU a mere month before the Wildcats were to play in the TicketCity Bowl in Dallas on Jan. 1.
“I expressed that he should stay, but the decision was already made,” Fitzgerald said. “I told him if there was anything I could do to help him to call me — but I wasn’t going to recruit him again.”
Fields has resurfaced at Cypress (Calif.) Community College, where he is playing baseball — the college does not have a football program — and he feels as if he is back in high school, going through the recruiting process. Fields, who has two years of eligibility remaining, still wants to play both sports in college and said he will take official visits to Arizona State, UCLA, USC, Florida and maybe Miami.
“I either want to enroll in the summer or wait until the fall,” said Fields, an outfielder. “If [a school] wants me to play both, I will still play both — but I want to play it by ear to see if that opportunity comes up.”
At Cypress, Fields has started in both left field and center field and is hitting .394 with 13 hits (including three triples) and 10 RBI in eight games.
In an age where college athletes transfer on a whim, the practice is uncommon in Evanston; Fields is only the third football player in 10 years to leave. Thomas Bemenderfer was an offensive lineman from Mishawaka, Ind., who transferred to Notre Dame in 2006. Tony Stauss was a pro-style quarterback from Racine, Wis., who transferred to North Dakota State in 2003 after the Wildcats started running a spread offense.
“I knew what I was getting into with both sports, [but] I never told anyone why I left,” said Fields, who was at NU on a football scholarship. “[In football] I didn’t understand how I went from being ‘the guy’ to nothing. I’m not going to sit here and say I was perfect, but I didn’t understand how I wasn’t able to fight for what I worked so hard for.”
During Big Ten Media Days in August, Fitzgerald emphasized how he wanted to run the ball more and maybe tab Fields as “the guy” in the Wildcats’ backfield. Fields was coming off a true-freshman season in which he was the team’s leading rusher with 302 yards and five touchdowns, so expectations were high for the compact 5-9, 195-pounder.
But about two weeks later, Fields dislocated his left shoulder at Camp Kenosha. He was healthy enough to start against Vanderbilt in the season opener, but rushed for minus-seven yards on 10 carries in the Wildcats’ 23-21 victory.
It seemed as if Fields got his groove back a week later against Illinois State, rushing for a career-high 96 yards in a 37-3 win. He ran for 55 yards against Rice, 16 against Central Michigan, and did not play at Minnesota. He was not on the depth chart for the Purdue game on Oct. 6 and did not start again.
The coaching staff tinkered with the running game and rotated among backs Jacob Schmidt, true freshman Adonis Smith, redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy (from Wheaton North) and occasionally special teamer Venric Mark. Trumpy ended up being “the guy” until he fractured his right wrist against Illinois at Wrigley Field and had to sit out the Wildcats’ regular-season finale at Wisconsin and the TicketCity Bowl.
The Wildcats finished the season with 2,027 rushing yards with quarterback Dan Persa and Trumpy as the team’s leading rushers.
“I felt like something wasn’t right,” Fields said. “I had [teammates] come up to me every day and ask why I was not playing.”
Fields saw some playing time on special teams, but he saw the writing on the wall. He rushed for 178 yards in 10 games with one touchdown. On Dec. 2, Fitzgerald announced that Fields was transferring. Fields had met with Fitzgerald a few days before the announcement, and Fitzgerald said he tried to talk him out of leaving.
“He said it was in his best interest to take his talent elsewhere,” Fitzgerald said. “I disagreed with it. I’m not sure [if the benching was a reason], because he’s such a competitor.”
And Fitzgerald said he and Fields never had a talk about picking one sport over another.
“It’s hard, and he handled [playing two sports] really well,” Fitzgerald said. “He was adamant that he wanted to do it.”
It seems Fields has made his choice for now.
“I gave Northwestern everything I had,” he said. “I worked hard, and I was committed until the day I left.
“I didn’t want things to be this way.”