As a high school athlete, Brandon Fields’ thoughts gravitated more toward basketball than football. In fact, in his first two years at St. John’s Jesuit, it was his goal to play basketball in college.
Fields was the starting post player on the 2001-02 Titans basketball team that closed the regular season 20-0, was ranked No. 1 in Ohio, and finished 25-1 with a season-ending loss in the Division I regional final.
It wasn’t until he developed into one of Ohio’s top high school punters that his focus switched to his prospects in football. Fields’ punting skill emerged during his junior season in 2000.
Unfortunately for current St. John’s football coach Doug Pearson, his tenure guiding the Titans missed Fields by one year. But Pearson, then at Start, remembers Fields’ talent.
“The biggest thing was that his punting ability was miles above everybody else,” Pearson said. “It was just like a man playing with boys. He was that good.
“I remember we had [St. John’s] pinned deep one night, and we had the lead on them. They were at their 8-yard line, and he hit one about 78 yards. All of a sudden now we’re pinned deep. He could change the complexion of a game more than any other specialist I’ve ever seen. There’s been nobody since then that’s even been close to him as a punter.”
After a superb career at Michigan State as one of the nation’s leading punters, the 29-year-old Fields — approaching his seventh season with the Miami Dolphins — has developed into one of the National Football League’s elite punters.
He no longer stresses over the do-or-die nature of an NFL training camp, or worries about each and every kick while trying to hang on to his job.
Brandon Fields is an established, proven punter who led the NFL in average yards per kick (50.2) last season, ranking sixth in the more important stat of net yards per punt (41.2).
“It’s completely different now from a mental standpoint,” Fields said. “My first couple years, I was very nervous and not exactly sure what was going to happen. It was kind of a day-to-day, game-to-game situation. I was trying to make the team and then perform at a high enough level where they wanted to keep me around.
“Now it’s a lot more comfortable. I know what they want out of me, and I know how to deliver. It’s more relaxed. I can just go out there and do my job and have fun with it.”
After earning first-team All-Ohio honors as a punter at St. John’s in 2001, Fields burst onto the college scene as a redshirt freshman in the fall of 2003, averaging 46.4 yards per kick, good enough to rank No. 1 in the Big Ten and No. 2 in the nation. In 2004, Fields’ 47.9-yard average led the country, and he was a consensus All-American.
A seventh-round draft pick of the Dolphins in 2007, Fields made the team and kicked for a 43.2-yard average as a rookie. In each of his six seasons, Fields has steadily improved, with his only drop being from 46.3 in 2009 to 46.2 in 2010. He jumped to 48.8 in 2011, then eclipsed the 50-yard mark last season.
“It was probably my third season when I shifted mentally from worrying about a bunch of little things to just going out there and having fun and doing what I can do,” Fields said. “Each year I’ve gone back and worked on little things. I refocus and I don’t take for granted what I did in the past.
“A lot of it is the guys around me. They’ve been doing a heck of a job blocking for me and covering punts.”
There is much more of a science to punting in the NFL than just yards per kick, and Fields has worked each season to fine-tune his skills.
“I definitely wasn’t perfect last year,” he said. “There’s a lot of kicks I’d like to have back. I’m not going into this year thinking I’m going to average 52 yards for the season, but there’s still a lot of little things that I can improve on and do better.
“You take it one game at a time and one punt at a time. A lot of it comes down to the situations. Going into a game, I can’t control where I’m going to punt from, or how many times I’m going to punt. When my number is called, I have to go out and see what the situation is and what needs to be done, and just kick to the best of my ability.
“It’s a little different from game to game depending on who we play. There are some returners who are more dangerous than others, and there’s punt-return teams that are a lot better at blocking and getting back down the field.”
Fields acknowledged that being an established punter in the NFL is a pretty solid gig. In a dangerous sport, where inevitable injuries lead to short careers, the relatively safe role of a punter can lead to lengthy and profitable careers for those skilled enough to endure.
Is it a good job?
“Absolutely,” Fields said. “If you can do it at a high level, obviously you can last a long time. I think the longest career was 22 years by Jeff Feagles. The kickers and punters who can perform at a high level can stay with one or two teams for their entire career and can play for many years.
“Some guys bounce around a lot between teams but, before you know it, they’ve been around for 10 or 15 years.”
Under contract with the Dolphins through the 2016 season, Fields is compensated in the million-dollar range per season. A salary like that has enabled Fields and his wife, Katie, to enjoy life more comfortably in the their home near Ft. Lauderdale.
Married in February of 2008, the couple is expecting their first child in December. The former Katie Navarre, who attended Notre Dame Academy and Bowling Green State University, is the daughter of Oregon police chief Mike Navarre, who was also Toledo’s former police chief.
One of the ways Brandon and Katie have chosen to give back to the Toledo community is with their annual Football and Cheerleading camp for boys and girls in kindergarten through eighth grades, which they started in 2010. This year’s two-day event was held June 28-29 at St. John’s. The past two years they added a Fit Kids fitness camp to the program.
“It’s good just to see the kids’ faces when they’re out there having a good time, and seeing the repeat participants,” Fields said. “Some kids have been there all four years. I get a lot of enjoyment out of it.”
Fields’ job with the Dolphins is not limited to just punting. He also serves as the team’s holder on field goals and extra-point kicks, and he’s occasionally pressed into full-contact duty as the last line of defense on opponents’ punt returns.
“I’m the safety,” said the 6-foot-5, 249-pound Fields. “For me it’s never been an issue of tackling guys, it’s been an issue of catching them. They’re so fast, and usually a lot smaller than me. If I can get my hands on them, I can usually bring them down.”
Fields is optimistic about Miami’s prospects for the 2013 season.
“I feel very good about this upcoming season,” Fields said. “We made a lot of acquisitions, both with draft picks and free agency, so we’ve got a lot of new weapons on offense.
“The spring [workouts] also went really well. Everybody was working hard and got a lot done leading up to the season. Everything looks good right now, but it’s kind of tough to say [how it will pan out] until you put the pads on and get into some preseason and see where we’re at as a team.”
One of the players trying to make the Dolphins during the late July-early August training camp will be former Clay High School and University of Michigan standout safety Jordan Kovacs, who was signed as an undrafted free agent.
“Jordan is a great guy and a hard worker,” said Fields, who was joined by Kovacs at the Football and Cheeerleading camp two weeks ago. “He’s very smart, and obviously he wouldn’t be where he’s at if he wasn’t. The fact that he was undrafted doesn’t matter as much on our team, because in the past we’ve had a lot of undrafted guys prove themselves and make the team.
“I think his work ethic is strong enough that he will do all the little things right to give himself a shot. It’s very competitive. We have 90 guys right now, and they will cut it down to 53, so the margin for error is very slim. Hopefully he’ll be able to make the Dolphins. If not, maybe he will impress some other coaching staff and get picked up by another team.”
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