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December 16, 2012The arrival of Devonte Fields began with an injury.
Not to him, of course, but to Ross Forrest, the senior defensive end who entered last offseason firmly entrenched in a starting role at defensive end, playing opposite of Stansly Maponga.
A former walk-on, Forrest saw time as a true freshman in 2008, suffered a season-ending injury in 2009 and played a reserve role in 2010 before earning the starting job midway through last season.
This would be his year.
In the end, it wasn't. A knee injury ended Forrest's his career before his senior season barely got started.
Instead, Fields stepped in and shined, totaling nine sacks, a league-high 17.5 tackles for loss and a truckload of postseason awards, including AP Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus freshman all-American selection.
Fields, a highly-touted freshman, essentially continued at college the dominant high school career that made him a four-star recruit, one of the top prep players in the country.
The expediency of the results might have been surprising - but the results themselves had to be somewhat expected.
At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, Fields is built to play defensive end. His speed - the same speed that allowed him to moonlight as a running back at Arlington Martin - sometimes makes it unfair for lumbering offensive tackles.
He is a natural talent.
But it might have been teaching moments Fields shared with Forrest before and during the season, even after Forrest's injury, that refined the young star's game into a polished product.
"Him just being there, helping me out and coaching me every play helped me get used to everything," Fields said.
And from that, grew a connection between two teammates with different backgrounds, different skill sets and different futures.
The education of Devonte Fields started with a white board.
Over the summer, Forrest would gather the young defensive ends - Fields, Josh Carraway, James McFarland - and go through the playbook with them, drawing up plays and walking out, step-by-step, their roles within the defense.
The learning curve was sharp. Fields took it in stride, grasping ahold of Gary Patterson's 4-2-5 scheme in the most intricate and complex of ways. The freshman's understanding came quick but thorough, Forrest said. It was only a matter of weeks.
"The most remarkable thing he's done is master this defense within a month before the start of the season," Forrest said. "That just speaks so highly of what kind of athlete he is."
The things Fields learned in those summer sessions with Forrest translated straight onto the practice field during two-a-days.
Three days in, Fields was running with the ones, making plays like a four-year starter. He was still a kid.
"It's crazy that he's built like that at 18 years old," Forrest said.
Fields wowed his teammates and coaches - even some of his slip-ups went unnoticed. Those didn't seem to matter much as he worked his way through and around the offensive line like the best Big 12 defender he'd eventually become.
Fields, though, wasn't blinded by his own success, maniacally picking apart his game, Forrest said.
"Everybody was impressed by him, and he messed up one little play," Forrest said. "It wasn't even a big deal - not even the coaches said anything about it. I was just going to try and grab him and tell him what to do with it, and he was just so upset with himself.
"To see that it meant so much to him, that early on, you could tell he was going to be special. And he is."
The mentorship of Devonte Fields didn't start with Ross Forrest.
It began last year with Braylon Broughton, a senior at the time who was displaced by Forrest at defensive end.
Broughton worked hard in the offseason and started the first five games, playing opposite of Stansly Maponga. Then, Forrest took the job Oct. 8 against San Diego State and kept it the rest of the year.
But the bond between Broughton and Forrest - both as friends and teammates - transcended playing time.
"As soon as I got a chance, instead of getting down or anything, he was the first person in my corner, pulling for me the most and supporting me," Forrest said. "I've never been so humbled by somebody in my life. For him to treat me the way he did after his senior year not going the way he thought it would, that just speaks so much to the kind of person he is."
Broughton's outlook last year would serve as an applicable lesson for Forrest, who career was ended two quarters into his senior season.
Forrest had battled knee injuries through the spring and summer, but if he had surgery then, he would have surely missed the entire year. So he went for it this fall.
Against Grambling State, his knees couldn't hold up.
He had surgery on his right one two months ago, and his left one last week. He has six months of rehab ahead.
During the season, he watched from the stands, his physical situation not exactly lending itself to sideline observation.
"I can't afford to get rolled up," he says.
The injury hurt Forrest as much emotionally as it did physically.
"It's heartbreaking not being able to play your senior year, after walking on and working like you do," Forrest said.
But Forrest, a fifth-year senior, found hope in the freshmen who so many times filled the field for the Frogs this year.
"You just have to find the better things to look for," he said. "And being around those young guys, honestly, has filled that void for me this year."
Fields' presence has been particularly special.
"After he has a good game, he's never so high on himself," Forrest said. "The first thing he does is come say hi to me or come give me a hug. He's a great kid. He's humble and he really understands what the game is all about."
On Thursday, Fields met with the media for the first time all season. He was quick to credit Forrest.
"Ross has been helping me out since the summer time so I was kind of getting used to the plays," Fields said. "I just thank Ross for that."
The gratefulness has been mutual.
"He's unbelievable, in every sense of the game," Forrest said. "Getting to watch him this year - that is a gift."
The future of Devonte Fields is a beaming one.
Expect Forrest to be watching from Odessa - he's heading home.
He'll get married in February, then head into a job with his father's tire company, which has several stores across the New Mexico and Texas, including one in his hometown, where Forrest will be based.
At TCU, he played in a Fiesta Bowl, played in a Rose Bowl and played at Cowboys Stadium on ESPN, but Forrest can't wait to get home, back to Odessa, where high school football is king and that Permian Mojo, portrayed so mythically in Friday Night Lights, still means something very real to the West Texas town.
Forrest embraces that.
When he talks about mostly anything, Forrest seems to speak with his heart. The passion flows even stronger when his high school alma mater is brought up. If you listen close enough, you might think you were in the huddle with Mike Winchell or in a locker room with Gary Gaines.
"I'm so proud to be from Odessa," he said. "And the book and movie are great, but for me it was the people growing up. People live and die for high school football out there. It makes it exciting when you're a kid growing up."
Unsurprisingly, Forrest has grown a similar affection for TCU. He has never felt foreign to tradition or prestige.
The majority of what he has found in Fort Worth has been through his teammates and coaches and the relationships intertwined between them.
"One thing that makes our program so special, is that all the kids on the team have such a close relationship," Forrest said.
The lessons Forrest tried to instill in Fields were passed down to him from Broughton who learned what he knew from those before him. It's a cyclical process at the root of the program's foundation.
"That's the epitome of what a TCU player has been about since we've been here, and why we've won," Patterson said.
But Forrest isn't foolish enough to think Fields isn't different than most freshmen or that a little help from a senior would be the sole reason for Fields' early success.
"I helped him out, but not enough to make him what he is today," Forrest said. "That's all him. For a freshman to recognize how hard it is for me not to play this year and give me credit for stuff -- it just shows what kind of person he is."
So now Forrest sits with his football days behind him, and Fields' career at the beginning stages. He jokes about signing a contract with Fields that would give him 20 percent of everything the young star makes if he ends up playing professionally.
Then, he takes on a serious tone, speaking as if he were a proud father. The passion flows.
"He's such an amazing kid," Forrest says. "He's kind. He's respectful to people. He's humble. He's every coach's dream athlete. He's a good kid through and through. And I've met his family several times, and they're just good, kind people, and I couldn't be more fortunate to be around him."
Forrest pauses for a moment. He catches his breath then says again what he likely knew long before Fields even recorded his first sack.
"He's got a long football career in front of him."