Three major surgeries in four years, two straight seasons confined to the sideline and hundreds of hours of rehabilitation — but Ben Fields has only had one question: “What next?”
Setbacks have defined Fields’ four years as a forward for the Loyola of New Orleans basketball team.
His first season: a re-torn left ACL from high school. As a sophomore: a torn right ACL in training. Junior year: recovering from surgeries on both knees, a ruptured left Achilles tendon.
A string of injuries like that could be enough to make any athlete hang it up, but Fields is doing the opposite.
He returned to the court in September for his second and final active season for the Wolf Pack, and he’s found his stride in the second half of play with six double-doubles and a Southern States Athletic Conference player of the week award since the start of January.
And for Fields, the question remains: What next?
“My mother always told me, ‘Your story is going to be really good, you’re just adding another chapter and this is going to impact somebody you don’t even know in a major way.’
"So that’s how I looked at it,” Fields, a 6-foot-7 senior, said.
Four years ago, Fields’ promising debut at Loyola was undermined by the ACL tear, reinjured from his days as a top Louisiana high school prospect from Union Parish High in Farmerville. It went undiagnosed until midseason, with Fields brushing off his lingering knee pain and finishing out the year even after the diagnosis.
“He’s just been relentless,” coach Stacy Hollowell said. “To go through what he’s gone through, I would not want to have one ACL surgery. I’ve seen what it looks like up close and personal.
“He’s come back now from two of those, and an Achilles tear, and it’s just inspirational to see a guy compete and bounce back and never give up, never quit. That’s moving for all of us.”
In the second half of his sophomore season, while coming back from the summer surgery, Fields tore his ACL and meniscus during practice, this time in his right knee.
“It was more so like, still, OK, what’s next? I called my mom and she said, ‘Recover, just recover,’ ” Fields said.
When Fields initially told Loyola athletic trainer Ken Faldetta about his knee pain, Faldetta assumed he was talking about his first ACL tear. After an MRI on his opposite knee, he was back in surgery that week and at the start of the road to recovery once again.
“He’s definitely one of the most resilient people I’ve ever encountered,” Faldetta said.
“He had never taken his eyes off the goal of getting back, so it was easy for me because he was in here every day ready to put the work in to get where he needed to go.”
Faldetta said he’s spent almost two hours a day, nearly seven days a week with Fields in the past four years.
“Hours. Definitely an equal amount of time in that training room as I’ve spent in a classroom. That’s during the semesters and the summers,” Fields said.
“The thing that really impressed me is that he overcame so many different obstacles and never once made it seem like it was too much for him,” Faldetta said. “So I give him tremendous credit for being so committed to getting back.”
After working on both knees all summer, Fields, his coaches and his family hoped for a return to the court before the end of his junior year.
But during a light workout that August, one step ended any possibility of that comeback season.
“We were all lining up running and Ben’s doing his rehab when we hear a big scream and instantly we knew something bad happened,” teammate Ethan Turner said.
“Everyone was mentally out of it after that. Two times is something, but three times is even worse.”
With his left Achilles tendon snapped, Fields required another surgery and would be back in a motorized scooter for the second time in as many years.
Not even a month earlier, Fields’ grandmother died, making the process even more difficult for his mother.
“I remember I had a conversation with my sister,” Penya Fields said. “I told her, ‘I really need Benjamin to be healthy and to go to some games and be supportive,’ ” she said. “He had been working out and doing his physical therapy and training all summer and we had lost her at the end of July.”
Still, Fields didn’t quit.
“I thought about hanging it up many a time, many times. People tell you constantly, ‘Why are you doing this to yourself?’ ” Fields said. “It’s not in my nature to give up, it’s not in my nature to just stop and hang it up.”
Dr. Wendell Heard, an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Tulane, performed his third reconstructive surgery on Fields in his college career, giving him the possibility to play in front of his family again.
“I think his case is unique in that he’s had these three really bad injuries,” Heard said. “The more surgeries that somebody has, the harder it is to get back to activity. Certainly, getting an athlete back to college level sports is always difficult even with one injury.”
The timelines for ACL and achilles recoveries are both six to nine months, with complete Achilles recovery sometimes taking up to a year, Heard said.
Fields could have given up during any one of those recovery periods. Instead, he developed into a leader for the Wolf Pack.
“He’s always there for you when you need him and he’s always been that way since I’ve known him,” Turner said.
He still spends many hours rehabbing his injuries. Before the sun rises and after it sets, Fields is in the training room.
“Even when I couldn’t play I was passing out water bottles, I was recording the games, I was traveling, I was talking to my teammates, I was breaking down the huddles, I was texting people on the side, making sure their heads were straight, making sure they’re getting to study hall,” Fields said. “It was just being a good teammate.”
Outside the gym, Fields is active on campus and in the classroom as he continues to full recovery.
“In those moments, if I’m not tired from practice I better be on my books. I better make sure I’m going to all my classes, I better make sure my grades don’t slip,” he said. “Regardless of an injury, my brain was never hurt in any of these.”
Fields is a part of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the Black Student Union, has worked for Loyola’s residential life as a residential assistant and is active in the school of business as an accounting major.
After graduation, he plans to work with his family in finance and hopes to one day teach financial literacy to kids in need.
This planning and activity comes with practicing, watching film, working out, and, of course, rehabbing his body.
“It puts things into perspective. You realize what’s most important, you realize what you’re going to focus on, and you realize who’s actually there for you," he said.
After over three years of recovery from three potential career-ending injuries, Fields eased back onto the floor of The Den last semester, averaging less than five minutes a game in the first half of this season, but playing nearly 20 minutes each game since January.
“To be able to come back and see the fruits of my labor, in a way, it was a great feeling. To be able to have those double-doubles happen, but most of all get those wins for my team, to help my team where I couldn’t in the past, it was great,” said Fields.
“Every time he’d grab the ball or run down the court you’re thinking something’s going to happen,” Penya Fields said. “But then he’ll do something so awesome, and I’m like ‘Wow, that’s Ben.’ ”
“As a big brother I’m like, ah, I could still take him. But seeing him now and thinking about where he was then, I’m just proud of him. I feel like he learned so much past basketball with these experiences,” said William Fields Jr., Fields’ oldest brother.
The Wolf Pack (15-12, 11-6 conference) now looks toward the conference tournament this week in Birmingham, Alabama, where they hope to earn a ticket to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament.
As for Fields, he can be found with bags of ice wrapped around both knees and his left ankle and a smile on his face.
“It’s amazing. I feel like I have something to tell my kids, regardless of what they go through, I have the scars to prove it. This too shall pass. Whatever you go through, you have the tools to overcome it,” Fields said.