LAKE FOREST, Illinois — Justin Fields regained consciousness in the back of the ambulance with no memory of what happened. All he remembered from that morning in ninth grade was feeling “a little off” when he went to Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Georgia.
While sitting in health class, Fields said he freaked out a few times. He later learned that he had a seizure and lost consciousness.
The 23-year-old Chicago Bears quarterback, who was 15 at the time, was diagnosed with epilepsy, which is the fourth most common neurological disorder worldwide, according to the Epilepsy Foundation.
“I cried because I didn’t know how this would affect my football career,” Fields recently told ESPN.
As it turns out, it didn’t affect him at all. Fields is emerging as one of the most prolific rushing quarterbacks in the NFL in just his second season, leading all QBs with 834 rushing yards this season despite missing Sunday’s game after suffering a severed left shoulder. After a tough rookie season, Fields began living up to his pre-shoulder hype, including rushing for 178 yards — the most by a QB in a Super Bowl-era regular season game — against the Miami Dolphins in Week 9. He is considered day-to-day ahead of Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers (1 p.m. ET, Fox) in Chicago.
The Bears traded nine spots to pick Fields No. 11 overall in the 2021 draft, and former Bears GM Ryan Pace, who was fired after a 6-11 finish last season, said Chicago is comfortable with Fields for dealing with his condition.
As November, National Epilepsy Awareness Month, comes to a close, Fields opened up on his journey from that day in ninth grade to understanding the warning signs, to the preventive measures he takes each day, to the potential to overcome the disease. There was a time when he said he was uncomfortable talking about epilepsy, but now he wants to help raise awareness and be a role model for others.
“I THINK, YOU tried to get all the kids out of class when I had it,” Fields said of his first seizure. “They said I was foaming at the mouth and things like that.”
After a battery of tests, including a CT scan and an electroencephalogram, in which electrodes were placed on Fields’ scalp to record his brain’s electrical activity, doctors determined he had epilepsy.
They made a hereditary connection when they learned that Fields’ mother, Gina Tobey, also had epilepsy. Tobey was diagnosed in the seventh grade and she said she outgrew the condition around the age of 19.
“Absolutely, you can grow beyond that,” said Jacqueline French, chief medical officer of the Epilepsy Foundation and professor of neurology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “There are some types of epilepsy that you can grow out of and others that you won’t outgrow.”
Tobey said doctors believe puberty triggered the onset of her epilepsy and she thinks it may have been the same situation for Fields. French said puberty can trigger epilepsy because of the effects hormones can have on a person’s seizure threshold.
Tobey shared her journey with Fields and pointed out warning signs of an impending seizure. The most important advice she gave him was to be conscientious about taking his medication. Fields takes four pills every morning to prevent seizures.
He said the seizures occurred about a year and a half apart, and he estimates his last was a few years before draft.
“When I had them, it was just because I wasn’t taking my medicine,” Fields said. “Once I had one, I wanted to see if I outgrew it because my mother outgrew it. So let me see if I did too. But I don’t even play with it now.”
Tobey saw a difference in her son’s experience.
“What struck me was his recovery time,” she said. “When you have a seizure, it’s like shaking something in a cup. Your brain is like it’s jumping around in your head.
“By the end of the episode you have these monster migraines and it would take me a day or two to recover. He needs two to three hours, he can sleep it off.”
FIELDS IS KNOWN how to deal with the onset of a possible seizure.
“I know when I have one, I just forget what I’m doing, leave the zone and then boom, 30 seconds later I get locked in, and then I do it two or three times,” he said. “So if I do it two or three times, then I know something’s coming.”
He lies down immediately and tries to rest if he thinks a seizure is about to happen.
“The last one I had, I felt it straight away, so I lay down and I still had it,” he said. “I went to sleep. I think I had it while sleeping, then woke up and my head hurt.
“So when I wake up and my head hurts, I know I’ve had a seizure. my body hurts Usually, when you have a seizure, all of your muscles tense up…you tensed your muscles for 45 seconds or a minute. So I know when I’m about to have one now, I usually try to lie down and go to sleep.”
Fields can empathize with how his parents felt, including his father Pablo, who was a resource officer at Harrison High School and is a retired Atlanta police officer.
“I think every time you see your kid on the floor having a seizure, there’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to wait for it to wake up,” Fields said. “It’s probably really scary for her. I know my father; he hates seeing her.
“He has always insisted that I take my medication and make sure I don’t stay up too late and get enough sleep. He always told me he loved it when I slept. Every time I sleep, he won’t tell me anything because of course he knows that sleep will help with that.”
It’s possible Fields will grow out of his seizures, but for now, Tobey isn’t taking any chances.
“He’s 23 but I’ll still be like, ‘Are you taking your medicine?'” she said. “Just because moms do when it comes to everything.”
FIELDS HE SAYS I’ve never missed a game because of epilepsy – from high school to college in Georgia and Ohio State to the NFL.
“That was my first fear,” Fields said. “When I was first diagnosed I was like, ‘Damn, football is like – I get hits on the head all the time. I don’t even know if I can play much longer. ‘ But I don’t think it was a big conversation with the neurologist.”
French said doctors usually advise caution when it comes to playing contact sports with epilepsy, but there are no absolute reasons that preclude a person’s ability to play soccer. The key, French said, is making sure the condition is properly controlled.
“If it’s not controlled there is a chance someone could have an altered consciousness at times and if you play a sport where that could put you at risk in and of itself then that would be an issue that needs to be seriously discussed ‘ French said.
She added: “We don’t want to put people with epilepsy in a glass box. Every conversation we have with them is: What’s the benefit? What does that mean for you? And what’s the risk? But at the end of the day, when you come of age, you can make a decision about what you do.”
Three team sources who were present at draft meetings, one from the NFC and two from the AFC, told ESPN that Fields’ epilepsy came up in conversations when they were evaluating him as a draft prospect, but it wasn’t given as a reason considered not drafting him because of the how Well he’s mastered the condition.
“[Fields has] has handled a lot of those things throughout his life, and we have a lot of ties to the Ohio State football program, and our doctors and coaches are doing a great job,” Pace said the night he drafted Fields. “We felt very comfortable with that and how he was dealing with it.”
Fields said he doesn’t recall having specific conversations about his epilepsy with Teams during one of his pre-design visits. His agent, David Mulugheta of Athletes First, prepared him for any questions he might have.
“I mean, it’s crazy, but at the end of the day it’s a business, so it is what it is,” Fields said.
When Fields’ epilepsy became public pre-draft, Ohio State coach Ryan Day took to Twitter to support his quarterback, who became the first in OSU history to lead the Buckeyes to back-to-back playoffs. Fields finished third in the Heisman vote as a sophomore.
“Justin’s health, tenacity and work ethic have never been an issue and I am incredibly proud of his professionalism and the character he displays on and off the field,” Day tweeted. “The fact that he’s never missed a game at Ohio State speaks volumes about how he takes care of himself.”
Fields isn’t the first person with epilepsy to play in the NFL. Former Pittsburgh Steelers guard Alan Faneca spoke about his experience with epilepsy during his induction speech into the Hall of Fame in August 2021.
“If I did it, so can Justin Fields and so can anyone,” Faneca tweeted after news of Fields’ epilepsy broke. “It’s part of us, but doesn’t define us!”
French commended Fields for sharing his journey and using his platform to raise awareness. Like Faneca, Fields focuses on breaking stigma and inspiring others, especially children with epilepsy.
“It’s just that, raising awareness and then giving those kids hope, too,” Fields said.
ESPN NFL insider Jeremy Fowler contributed to this report.