Every morning, Joe Fields walks into what could be the dream office of any aspiring football coach.
The corner suite in Texas A&M’s Bright Football Complex features a wall of windows that overlooks the university’s sprawling indoor practice facility.
Fields once seemed destined to a career wielding a whistle and barking direction to a squad of players. Now, he says, he’s living his dream career in a different role for the Texas A&M athletics department.
As the university’s associate athletic director for academic services, Fields manages a staff that works with more than 600 Aggie student athletes, providing guidance and aid for their academic lives.
Fields was born in Houston to a mother who was a school bus driver and a father who operated a taxi. His two sisters and two step-siblings lived in a two-bedroom apartment through the first years of his life.
His parents separated when he was 7, leaving Fields, his mother and two sisters in a difficult financial situation. The family of four went through 10 to 12 moves through the next decade of his life, he said.
“It was funny, because we got really good at knowing when things were about to happen,” he said. “So it will be the lights get cut off, the water gets cut off, the eviction notice was coming, and we’re basically getting kicked out here. We started looking for the next opportunity.”
Football, from Pop Warner to high school, was his only constant. The embarrassment that built up from wearing shoes with holes to school every day turned into aggression on the football field, he said.
“You could talk over there, but you got to deal with me here on the field,” he said with a smile.
In school at Booker T. Washington High School, Field’s focus was maintaining the minimum scores to be eligible to play football and achieving test scores to be NCAA eligible.
After failing a writing assignment his freshman year, Fields said he understood why so many of his classmates dropped out of high school. That day, he met with the running back coach at Washington, former Aggie assistant Clarence McKinney, who gave him the hope that he had a future. As a freshman, McKinney and the coaching staff gave him a shot as a quarterback on the varsity team.
“He was the one that really showed me the game and really showed me the ins and outs,” Fields said. “He held me accountable and told me what I could become.”
With many days of 5 a.m. workouts, picking up extra jobs and pushing himself through school, Fields earned a scholarship to play football at Syracuse University.
Before Fields graduated high school, his son was born. Accepting the offer to get an education and play football in New York would mean leaving his son for months at a time during the first years of his life.
“As you can imagine, it was a burden,” he said. “It was wanting to be a bigger role. Wanting to be down more often and not miss certain moments, but we definitely made it work.”
During spring break and the summer, his son visited him in New York. On other holidays, Fields made his way back to Houston where his son lived with his mother. Half of Fields’ scholarship and financial aid checks were sent to Houston to support his son, he said.
With that responsibility in mind, Fields learned the value of taking his education seriously. After four years of hand writing papers due to a lack of computers at Washington, he learned how to type. Initially, two-page papers took two hours, but he worked until he could type out an assignment in 20 minutes.
On the football field, Fields started his college career as a quarterback but found success in a move to defensive back. He led the Orange with 97 tackles his senior season, earning him All-Big East honors.
He turned that success into a season-long job with the Carolina Panthers in 2008.
At the same time, Fields’ oldest sister was sentenced to 18 years in prison on two counts of bank robbery.
“It was like, how can you end up becoming this and she decided to do this?” Fields said. “It was the mentality, right? It was the way we focused on mentality. She didn’t have an outlet. She focused on a mentality that she thought would provide immediate gratification. Whereas, I had a different angle, and I could apply some of those same type of traits to something that was going to be beneficial.”
Shortly after the arrest, his younger sister died of lupus.
“When I got to the peak of success, the person that had supported me and was my biggest fan wasn’t there,” Fields said.
“As soon as I got to the point where I could help and do things, she passed away,” he said.
With his education and means at his disposal and the sun setting on his playing days, Fields felt the call to give back in honor of those that invested in him. Initially, the next step was coaching.
He took a job at his alma mater as an academic graduate assistant in 2010, with a handshake agreement from coach Doug Marrone that he would move into a coaching position when one became available.
It wasn’t long before an opportunity arose, but by then Fields had discovered his true calling in helping student athletes with their academic endeavors off the playing field, he said.
“I could find a million DB coaches, I could find a million running back coaches that can impact the student athletes on the field,” Fields said Marrone told him. “But I don’t know how many young men that I can find that has the opportunity or have the ability to impact them outside of the football field.”
In his time with the Orange, the men’s and women’s basketball teams posted the highest team GPAs in program history and the football team co-led the ACC in team honor roll selections.
After seven years at Syracuse, working his way up to the position of director of academic services, he made the move to Aggieland to be closer to his parents and son in Houston. He brought with him his wife, Sade, and their two sons, Joseph and Jode, when he made the move in 2017.
Fields sometimes serves as a therapist and sounding board for football players who know his background in the Houston inner city and the college football field.
“When he talks about the things he has done, we’re able to see eye to eye and from the same lens,” A&M linebacker Keith McGee said. “I know a lot of us are from the Houston area, and he’s from the Houston area. To know someone who has come from our background to see what he’s done, it’s like, ‘OK, we’ve seen him and he’s done it, so why can’t we do it?’ ”
Every obstacle Fields overcame from his beginnings south of College Station serves as a teachable moment for the next generation of student athletes.
“I always felt like I was playing with house money,” Fields said. “[My family was] extremely proud when I went to college and I had [an] opportunity playing [in the] NFL, and now having this opportunity at Texas A&M ... being associated with it and having such a big role here absolutely makes them proud.”