Mark Fields followed a tough workout schedule this spring. The Panthers linebacker reached the team facility by 5:30 every morning, lifted weights for a couple of hours and vanished long before his teammates arrived because he couldn't risk being seen by them. Fields settled on this regimen early on, after attending one scheduled team workout that turned into a two-hour Oprah episode. Every teammate he saw wanted to slap him on the back, ask him how he was feeling and wish him luck. Fields decided that he didn't have time to bask in all that love.
Fields is back as Carolina's starting strongside linebacker after missing all of last season while undergoing treatment for Hodgkin's disease, and he's competing like a man who not long ago thought he might never play football again. Fields, a nine-year veteran, hustles through every drill as if he were an undrafted free agent hoping to make the team. "I'm giving this game everything I've got," he says. "I'm going to be attacking every time I'm out there."
If there was an underrated aspect of the Panthers' run to last season's Super Bowl, it was the inspiration that came out of the illnesses that felled Fields and linebackers coach Sam Mills, who learned he had intestinal cancer. Mills continues to fight his disease, but Fields's is in remission, and his healthy return means the Panthers now have their best linebacker back. The 6'2", 244-pound Fields led Carolina with 103 tackles in 2002 while adding 71/2 sacks. His speed will give the Panthers another dimension in their blitz package, while his vibrant personality will also be a welcome addition. "Mark is going to be our X factor," says Panthers strong safety Mike Minter. "He's motivated to show he's all the way back. And when we get down, he's going to be pumping us up because he wasn't around for the ride we had last year."
So far Fields has shown no indication that his health will be a problem. He has been surprised at how well he's running, but Panthers coach John Fox occasionally sat him for one session a day during the early portion of camp. "Mark has healed, but he's not 100 percent yet," Fox says. "He was inactive for a long time, and we don't want him pulling a hamstring or a calf muscle. I've had to explain to him that we've got a destination in mind for him. We're going to make some stops along the way, but we're going to get there."
Fields vividly recalls lying in a hospital bed in Charlotte in August 2003, gazing up at Fox, Panthers general manager Marty Hurney and owner Jerry Richardson and listening as a team of doctors told him he had cancer. That's when he had to face the possibility of never putting on pads again.
As his treatment progressed, however, Fields started thinking about a return. Friends encouraged him to play again, as did ESPN analyst and former NFL running back Merril Hoge, who also battled Hodgkin's. Fields's mother wasn't thrilled by the idea of his playing again, but she knew her son missed the game and that she couldn't hold him back. He often wrote letters to his teammates before key games, reminding them that they should cherish their opportunities. Now that he's back, Fields hasn't stopped preaching that message.
Fields says that one of the best things about his recovery is being around his teammates again. The strong chemistry of the Panthers helped them vault from doormats to Super Bowl team, and their greatest asset--a defensive front seven led by a dominant line--is now back to full strength, and they don't see any reason why they can't have another remarkable season. "All these guys are excited that I'm playing again," Fields says. "When people hear cancer, they automatically think a guy has one foot in the grave. They're wondering, When's the funeral? But I've proven that's not the case at all."
Fields recently took fellow linebackers Will Witherspoon and Dan Morgan to a Charlotte hospital to be with Mills as he underwent his chemotherapy. They watched Mills receive eight hours of radiation treatments. "You could see it opened their eyes," Fields says. "They saw that this was what I went through all last year, and it made them appreciate where we all are now." --J.C.
PLAYER ON THE RISE
> The Panthers were so impressed with JORDAN GROSS in 2003 that they released starting left tackle Todd Steussie to clear cap room. After starting all 16 games at right tackle, the 6'4", 300-pound Gross switches to the left side this season. He has power, quickness and a nasty streak that'll serve him well as he protects Jake Delhomme's blind side.
ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view
This offense is underrated. It might not be a great offense for a fantasy league, but it's great for winning games.... What I like most about Jake Delhomme is that he makes plays late in the game. You can't teach that, and you don't know who's good at it until they do it.... The strengths of the line are center Jeff Mitchell and left tackle Jordan Gross. Mitchell is an intelligent, technically sound player.... The passing game isn't very complicated, and rookie receiver Keary Colbert fits what they want--he's tough, he'll block, and he'll make catches on third down.... They're a little deeper at linebacker with Mark Fields back, and they've brought in [free agents] Jessie Armstead and Brandon Short. Dan Morgan is very fast and instinctive, but he's had a hard time staying healthy.... They've got three new guys in the secondary: Ricky Manning is small, but he can cover better than last year's starters; Chris Gamble has a lot of natural ability; and Artrell Hawkins is a serviceable corner. Mike Minter gives them a lot of leadership back there. They want smart defensive backs who won't gamble, because they're going to beat you with their front four.
"It might not be a great offense for a fantasy league, but it's great for winning games."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics
2003 RECORD: 11-5
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
COACH: John Fox; third season with Carolina (18-14 in NFL)
13 GREEN BAY (M)
19 at Kansas City
26 Open date
10 at Denver
17 at Philadelphia
24 SAN DIEGO
31 at Seattle
14 at San Francisco
28 TAMPA BAY
5 at New Orleans
12 ST. LOUIS
18 at Atlanta (S)
26 at Tampa Bay
2 NEW ORLEANS
NFL rank: T-1 Opponents' 2003 winning percentage: .537 Games against playoff teams: 8