It was the first quarter of a sloppy preseason opener on a rainy night at a half-filled FedEx Field. Most of the Carolina Panthers' starters just wanted to get their work in, avoid getting hurt and turn the game over to young players trying to earn roster spots.
Not Mark Fields.
"Usually most guys want to get off the field," Fields said Saturday night, "but I was kind of lingering, saying, 'Good.' " Fields, 31, savored every minute of Carolina's victory over the Washington Redskins. Even if it was just a preseason game, it was his first in a year. He missed all of the Panthers' Super Bowl season after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease last August.
"When you've gone through what I've gone through, any game is special," Fields said. "You only get a quarter out there, so many series. But it felt good to get out there, being where I was a year ago. . . . I can't complain about anything, not when I come from the place where I've been and come back and start in the NFL."
Fields was at the height of his career in training camp a year ago. A first-round draft pick by the New Orleans Saints out of Washington State, he was coming off a terrific 2002 season in which, after signing with the Panthers as a free agent, he'd had 71/2 sacks, forced seven fumbles and led the club with 127 tackles. He was a fast, strong linebacker seemingly on the verge of stardom on an up-and-coming team. At 6 feet 2, 245 pounds, he could run the 40-yard dash in a wide receiver-like time of 4.3 seconds. He gave speeches to high school athletes about the importance of education and had prepared for a smooth transition to life after football for himself, his wife and his three kids by starting a real estate business in Phoenix.
But then a cut on his thumb wouldn't heal and the Panthers sent him home from training camp in Spartanburg, S.C., to be examined by a specialist in Charlotte. Practically before he knew it, Fields said, he had a half-dozen doctors standing in front of him, telling him that he had Hodgkin's, a form of cancer that attacks the lymph nodes that are part of the body's immune system. The shock of that moment can't be put into words, he said.
As he learned about his disease, he said, he told his doctors that he wanted to return to football. Radiation and chemotherapy treatments leave about 80 percent of Hodgkin's patients disease-free five years after the treatments. Panthers Coach John Fox put Fields in touch with former NFL player Merrill Hoge, a Hodgkin's survivor. Fields paid close attention to the Tour de France victories of cancer survivor Lance Armstrong.
"Absolutely I had times when I doubted if this day would come, sure," Fields said of the preseason opener. "When this first started, of course I doubted. But then you talk to people that have it. You see what's going on with Lance. You talk to Merrill Hoge, who kept calling me and telling me things. The coaches and the players, their support was excellent. When you get all that, you've got to come back.
"It took a lot out of me. [Treatments] broke my body all down. But I listened to my doctors, especially when I told them that I wanted to come back and play. We did the things we needed to do. I had to listen to them. I had to follow through. That's what I did, and that's why I'm back. . . . You've got to have faith. You have to believe in God. For me, that's what I believed in. I had a strong family support. And then my football family, the Panthers, was a tremendous support for me."
Fox made certain that Fields felt like he was a part of last season's run to the Super Bowl. Fields delivered motivational speeches to his teammates. He could talk to Panthers linebackers coach Sam Mills, who had cancer of the small intestine diagnosed just a few weeks after Fields learned of his Hodgkin's. Like Fields, Mills is now back at work with the Panthers.
Fields, whose doctors cleared him to return to football in June, said they have told him he is cancer-free. He has resumed his early-morning arrivals in the weight room. He has improved his eating habits. He is fit again, and he sent a message during a practice early in training camp by running stride for stride with Panthers star wide receiver Steve Smith on a play.
"Everybody in this room has a lot of feelings for Mark Fields, myself included," Fox said in the locker room Saturday. "We feel blessed and fortunate to have him with us. He's been through a lot already from training camp. I feel like he's making great progress."
Still, Fields had to prove to himself and to his coaches that he could knock the rust off his game.
"The big thing with him is just getting his violence back because he's such a violent player, along with the anticipation you need as a linebacker in terms of seeing things and things being repetitive and knowing where to go," Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac said.
"He's such a focused guy and this football part of it means so much to him. I'm sure last year he had a lot of time to reflect on his family and everything, and that was all taken care of. Now he's back to football, and he wants to get that part of his life back. I think he just wants all that to be over with and just be Mark Fields again, not Mark Fields, the guy who's coming back from cancer that he had."
Fields was cheered enthusiastically by the crowd during the Panthers' second exhibition game last night against the New York Giants in Charlotte and looked even more like his old, reckless self with a pair of second-quarter sacks, one on rookie quarterback Eli Manning's final play of the evening and one on veteran Kurt Warner's first.
The coaches had some concern about Fields's ability to come back, said Trgovac, who attributed the wariness to their "ignorance" about what Fields was experiencing.
"I had never had to deal with this before," Trgovac said. "We weren't really sure what to expect. It's one of those deals where you just kind of look and learn. . . . I'm sure when you face that and get a chance to spend time with your family, you realize how lucky you are that it was curable and you're okay. You just don't know if he's going to come back with that same drive. Knowing Mark, we thought he would."
Fields said he passed the first preseason test and, to him, there's "no question" that he will return to his previous level.
"I thought I would be a little slower coming out here, and it hasn't happened," he said. "I'm real pleased with where I'm at right now.''
Diagnosed one year ago, he missed Carolina's 2003 Super Bowl season.