February 26, 1996 was the day Ronnie Fields’ life would take an unexpected turn. After a car crash occurred two days before his 19th birthday, he was forced to wear a protective halo while his broken neck healed from surgery to repair a fractured bone.
“I can close my eyes while riding through that area and picture the whole scene of exactly what happened,” Fields said while looking to the side and reminiscing on the night that changed his life. “I could’ve easily been dead or paralyzed.”
At one time, Fields was the touted as one of the most sought after recruits in the nation during his high school years at Farragut, which spanned from 1992 to 1996. Even being noticed by former Bears running back Walter Payton and celebrity lawyer Johnny Cochran, who both wished to represent him before their untimely passing.
With a 50-inch vertical leap, the No. 3 spot on the list of all-time leading scorers in the Chicago Public League and a physique that already embodied that of an NBA player, Fields was on track to accomplish what previous athletes from Chicago couldn’t, until the car accident halted his progress one week before the city playoffs.
Fields and NBA veteran Kevin Garnett were a 1-2 punch on Farragut’s team until Garnett declared for the NBA Draft in 1995, which led to Fields carrying the load and averaging 32.4 points, 12.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists 4.5 blocks and 4 steals a game the next season. Despite facing obstacles while playing at Farragut, Fields was yet to face his biggest challenge.
Following the accident, Fields stock went down, as his letter of intent with DePaul University was null and void when he was ruled academically ineligible and a few months later had a run-in with the law, pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of sexual abuse, which led to probation.
Fields then declared himself eligible for the 1996 CBA Draft and was selected in the 7th round by the LaCrosse Bobcats before declaring for the 1997 NBA Draft, but withdrew his name. He got a chance to enter the draft once again in 1998, but wasn’t selected by a team, which never deterred Fields from continuing his passion of playing basketball.
Unlike many other students of the game, Fields never dreamed of playing in the NBA. Blessed with talent which some have compared to Vince Carter, it all came natural to the athlete, who is now internationally known after playing in the Philippines, Venezuela, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece and even going through a four-season stint with a Rockford, IL team.
“It didn’t really bother me as much because it’s different when you have players like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson saying that this is an elite kid who can play here,” Fields expressed about not playing in the NBA. “For me, I was able to come to peace and learn a lot of things through that.”
Whether the 35-year-old, 6’3 shooting guard is just walking around his old stomping grounds on the Westside of Chicago near Farragut or spending time with his two kids around the Yorktown Mall where he frequently visits, he’s still well known and recognized.
Fields’ Farragut coach Ron Eskridge was ridiculed for his decision to rent the vehicle that the 18-year-old star was driving. He occasionally stayed with Eskridge in the west suburbs to escape the troubles and violence of the city, but was met with a different set of challenges following the accident.
“I made a mistake in terms of driving the car and him [Eskridge] renting it, but who’s to say if I’m not in that situation that I don’t make it to where I’m at now or even get caught up in what’s going on now,” Fields said in reference to the ongoing violence in the city.
Chicago has seen its share of promising stars rise from the most crime-ridden areas, avoiding drugs, gang affiliation and a troubled school system to become success stories, similar to Derrick Rose.
While Rose has proven it’s possible to climb the ladder of success out of an area with a deplorable crime rate, there have also been athletes who fell short.
A conversation about promising Chicago athletes doesn’t come up without the name of Benjamin “Benji” Wilson Jr. surfacing, who was shot to death on the eve of his senior season at Simeon High School where he was ranked as the No. 1 high school basketball player in the country.
Former Farragut High School standout Ronnie Fields name is often brought up in the same category of having limitless potential in high school, but not becoming a success story.
Contrary to popular belief, Fields is one of the most underrated success stories to come out of Chicago. Not because of his undeniable basketball skills, which are still sharp, but because of his contributions to local youth and perseverance to make a difference.
Fields said that if he could go back and do it all over again, he would take things one day at a time instead of looking too far into the future.
“Watching guys I looked up to like Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, (Larry) Bird, Magic (Johnson), I felt like I was treated like an NBA player early on,” Fields said. “It’s hard to know as a young kid who’s there for you and who’s not. For me, my father wasn’t in my life, so my guidance were the coaches who were around and friends in the neighborhood.”
Despite coming up short in his pursuit to play in the NBA and many opinions that he should have made it, the laid back athlete has eliminated stumbling blocks to make the path toward success easier for the youth in Chicago, who he now mentors and trains at Farragut Academy.
He also manages to take some of the kids out of neighborhoods that have taken the lives of thousands over the years, bringing them to the Lucky Strike in Yorktown Mall or any other places outside of Chicago to give them a change of scenery.
“He’s always had time for the kids,” Eskridge said. “He’s spent countless hours, sitting their making sure every kid got an autograph. He also gave a lot of his memorabilia that I tried to tell him that he should keep for his kids, but he gave it away to other kids. That comes from that light he has. The shine comes from within and he was around people who gave a lot, not for gain, but because it was in them to help kids.”
Fields is still viewed as a celebrity in the Chicago area, made evident by the respect he receives from his peers and mentors. Eskridge expressed how the room lights up when he walks in, catching the attention of kids, players and coaches while also becoming more spiritually grounded as an adult.
“He’s become more religious and he’s cut down on a lot of the things that young men normally do,” Eskridge said about Fields. “He thinks more now than he did when he was younger, which comes with maturity. His focus has become much greater.”
Since the 3-time Parade All-American selection has a similar story to many of the kids in Chicago, his voice captures their attention, giving him a unique quality that many products of the city lack.
Rick Malnati, who’s now a basketball coach at Loyola, met Fields when he was just an inner-city kid working at the Taste of Chicago passing out pizzas for his family’s well known pizzeria Lou Malnati’s.
While Malnati admits the young Fields wasn’t the best pizza maker when he met him after his 8th grade year, there was always a distinguished smile on his face and charisma that made him stand out in a crowd.
“The one thing that hasn’t changed is his smile and personality that lights up a room,” the Loyola coach said. “The one thing that has changed is that Ronnie has some wisdom now that he didn’t have at 18. He’s got great stories of falling and getting back on his feet. That’s a credit to Ronnie.
“[He's] got a way of communicating and a story to back up what he’s talking about that puts him in a unique position to influence some kids who probably need a positive influence right now,” Malnati added.
According to Malnati, Jabari Parker, Simeon’s standout player, is the only athlete from the Chicago area who comes close to going through what Fields went through, especially considering Fields once battled Kobe Bryant for the No. 1 spot as the top high school player in the nation.
“He’s had some times where he’s been down, but he’s always come back,” Malnati said. “He’s very resilient. That’s the beauty of Ronnie’s story. It’s his perseverance.”
Fields is now working on a documentary with media producer Thatcher Kamin titled “Bounce Back: The Ronnie Fields Story,” which recently reached its funding goal of more than $18,000 for distribution and is currently being edited. Fields expressed that the documentary will lay the foundation for other things he’s looking forward to do in the future.
What’s in the future for Fields? He’s been asked to coach in multiple leagues and is considering a coaching job with an AAU basketball team, which will begin October.
While people may look at his story as coming up short, Fields stays spiritually grounded and knows that his life is meant to inspire and motivate others to persevere toward their life goals.
For now, Fields is taking his own advice and living life one day at a time, but also making sure he impacts someone else’s life, in hopes of steering them toward making the right choices along the way.
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