Carson Wentz: In Pursuit Of Perfection
Even North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple couldn’t help himself.
Dressed in a green zip-up jacket while his wife wore a yellow coat to honor North Dakota State University’s school colors, he showed up early to the Carson Wentz draft party in Bismarck last month and had to snag a picture.
Not with the man the Eagles traded up for in hopes of landing a franchise quarterback, who was more than 800 miles away in Chicago, but with a cardboard cutout of him.
“He’s our hero,” Dalrymple says. “We feel like he’s our family.”
Dalrymple and his wife ascended two sets of stairs to join dozens of people in their suite at the MDU Resources Community Bowl, where they overlooked a few thousand people in the football stadium. While kids competed in NFL Combine-like drills to try to beat Wentz’s times, adults bid thousands of dollars for memorabilia the Bismarck native signed.
But they all attended for the same reason: to honor the 23-year-old whom many North Dakotans, including the Governor, call the biggest thing to happen to the state since Roger Maris broke the MLB single-season home run record in 1961.
“It’s priceless. We’re full of pride in North Dakota, and he’s truly an ambassador,” Dalrymple says. “It’s not just because he’s a great athlete — the way he conducts himself is pretty special to see.”
Dalrymple also chuckled at the reality before him: that thousands of strangers gathered on a Thursday evening “just to watch TV.” As unbelievable as the night was as it unfolded, it would’ve been even more unimaginable to consider just a few months prior.
Wentz led North Dakota State to consecutive FCS National Championships, but his draft stock didn’t begin to take off until the Senior Bowl in January, when Doug Pederson said he first began to fall in love with the quarterback. Five months later, the hype surrounding Wentz still hasn’t leveled off.
Even those closest to Wentz, who thought he had a chance to catch on in the NFL as a mid-round pick, couldn’t predict a team drafting him with the second overall selection. But the Eagles did just that, making him the highest non-FBS quarterback ever chosen.
So how did he get here?
When Kameron Wingenbach was in high school, he worked at Pebble Creek Golf Course in Bismarck. One day, Wentz visited him and hit a ball in the driving range, but he didn’t hit it well, so Wentz left, bought new golf clubs fitted for his size and returned every day to practice until he outdrove Wingenbach by 100 yards.
“Most competitive guy I’ve ever met,” Wingenbach, a close friend of Wentz’s, now says. “It was kind of annoying. He always had to be the best at everything he did. He had this determination about him. If he wasn’t good at something right away, he would put his time in and work his tail off until he was the best, and then he would go and excel at something else.”
Wentz’s friends, teammates and coaches insist you can’t find anyone who has anything bad to say about Wentz, whom they call “likable,” “humble” and “low-key,” but one thing that is easy to find is stories about his internal drive.
When he was in middle school, he would get so angry about losing, he sometimes cried after football games. In high school, he accepted any challenges presented by his friends, including one from Meyer Bohn, who bet Wentz a smoothie that he couldn’t catch a ball pegged at his head from ten feet away. (Wentz, as he almost always does, won.)
In college, Wentz made his friend Joe Haeg, who doubled as an offensive lineman for North Dakota State, play him in NBA 2K11 until Wentz was better than him. On the practice field, Wentz challenged other quarterbacks almost every day to arbitrary competitions, whether it was hitting a goal post upright from 30 yards away, or knocking over water bottles on the sideline from long distances.
Even when it comes to hunting, which evolved into what Wentz’s calls his “release,” the competitive nature takes over. According to Tate Leapaldt, a friend and hunting buddy of Wentz’s, the avid hunter hit just two out of 50 clay pigeons the first time they went shooting together. After that, however, he returned to shoot every time he had a few free hours during the weekend, and Leapaldt now estimates Wentz can hit 45 out of 50 targets.
“It’s how I’m wired,” Wentz says. “If I’m not the best at something, it ticks me off and I want to work my tail off to be the best.”
Even recently, just a couple of weeks before the draft, Wentz stayed up until nearly 3 a.m. playing Codenames, a board game, with Bohn and their girlfriends. They usually only play for about an hour, but because Wentz and Bohn — who were partners this particular night — struggled at first, Wentz insisted they play for six hours so he and Bohn could get on the same page and start a winning streak.
Those who know Wentz’s family attribute his competitiveness to his brother, Zach, who made a name for himself as an athlete in both Bismarck and Fargo, North Dakota for the Bison a few years before Carson did. Zach, who was also a starting quarterback at Century High School, was a baseball star at North Dakota State who etched his name all over the record book.
Wentz calls his older brother his “role model,” “standard,” and someone who still drives him, but Zach’s accomplishments also meant Carson competed in his older brother’s shadow. Sometimes, Carson’s high school play-by-play announcer would call him Zach when he threw touchdown passes to Wingenbach.
“I think the biggest (challenge) was just trying to get out from the shadow of his brother, because I know growing up he just hated when he was ‘Zach’s brother,'” Tom Keller, a life-long friend of Wentz’s, says. “That’s how a lot of people referred to him. It bugged him.”
School was just another competition for Wentz to beat everyone else in. Yes, he cared about academics, but that’s not the only reason he never received a grade lower than an ‘A’ in his entire life. People like Darin Mattern, the head varsity basketball coach at Century High School, saw how hard Wentz worked, and between the drive and growing frame, they joked with the high school student about how they wanted him on their team.
On the first day of basketball practice in 2010, Mattern walked out of the gym during a break, and he noticed Wentz in the weight room. He jokingly gave the senior a hard time about missing basketball practice, but the next day, Wentz walked into the gym and said he was joining the team. Several months later, Mattern’s new big man helped lead the team to a state championship.
“When I presented the challenge to him to join the basketball team, I think he looked at it as, ‘This is something I haven’t tried for awhile. I think I can do this.’ And his intent was trying to take his game and his team to a new level. There’s no question that did happen,” Mattern says. “He was a very big part of our basketball team leading us to a state championship.”
Mattern believes Wentz could’ve played Division I basketball, which is a thought Kent Schweigert, the Century baseball co-head coach, echoes. According to teammates, Wentz threw in the mid-80s when he was an underclassman, but he stopped pitching because of shoulder tendonitis.
Wentz wanted to prevent the injury from affecting his football career, but he still batted around .470 as a senior while playing third base. He also quickly emerged as a leader of the team, and his work ethic caused Schweigert to develop a saying when talking to other players: Practice like Carson practiced.
“We always gave him shit for (not pitching) because we wanted him to play for us. He was our best pitcher,” Zach Rhone, a close friend and former teammate of Wentz’s, now says. “Looking back on it, he probably made the right decision on resting his arm… but we probably would have won a state championship if he was our pitcher.”
Despite his success in other sports, Wentz’s affinity for football was well-known. He was under-recruited coming out of high school because of his late growth spurt — Wentz says he grew nine inches in high school (he grew another inch-and-a-half in college) — and he broke his right thumb as a junior, which meant he only started a full season at quarterback, his senior year.
Broken thumb or no, Wentz wasn’t happy with not playing, so he approached his coach, Ron Wingenbach, with an idea: Let me play receiver.
“He was very disappointed that he probably wasn’t going to be playing for the remainder of that season,” Wingenbach says. “But instead of sulking or just kind of saying, ‘Well, wait until next year,’ he stayed with us, continued to practice and stayed in shape so when the opportunity came at the end of the year, he was able to contribute.”
As he got bigger and filled out his frame more the following year, it was apparent Wentz had a future as a college football player. Central Michigan, however, was the only FBS school that came close to offering Wentz a scholarship — his brother says he was a week away from one when he committed to North Dakota State — so Wentz opted to head across the state to Fargo, North Dakota.
“A lot of people were kind of questioning that if Carson really wanted to get on the field ASAP, why would he go there?” Wingenbach says. “He wasn’t sold on the fact that he had to sit and wait until his turn. As it turned out, it was pretty hard to bench a three-time national champion (in Brock Jensen). I give a lot of kudos to Carson for sticking it out after the first couple years. Now you see a lot of quarterbacks transfer so they can get on the field. He paid his dues, and it’s going to pay off for him in the long run.”
THE CONTROVERSY THAT NEVER WAS
Bohn was nearly 300 miles away on the opposite side of North Dakota, but when he and Wentz first began college, they remained connected because they were both upset.
Wentz was sitting on the bench behind Jensen, who was two years older and went on to win more games than any other quarterback in FCS history, while Bohn played football for Dickinson State, a team struggling in the NAIA. So the two often had venting sessions on the phone.
“I’m just so frustrated, Meyer,” Bohn recalls Wentz saying. “Having to sit back here, I know I can compete. I know I can do that job.”
Wentz’s competitiveness made it difficult for him to go three years without playing, his friends and teammates say, but as he rode the bench, he took out that frustration as the scout team quarterback on one of the top defenses in the FCS. North Dakota State’s defensive coordinator at the time, Chris Klieman, was ridiculed in the media when he suggested the best quarterback his defense faced all year was the redshirt freshman in practice, and not any of the starting quarterbacks the Bison faced on their road to a national championship.
Christian Dudzik, a four-year starter at defensive back who ended his career as a first-team all-conference performer, agreed with Klieman. Dudzik, however, grew frustrated himself by the throws Wentz made during practice, recalling several times when a coach yelled at him for allowing a reception, while conceding Dudzik’s coverage was practically perfect.
“He was one of the major reasons we had such good defenses all four years I played,” Dudzik says, “because he was the scout team quarterback, or we were going head-to-head during camp.”
Even the offensive line coach would occasionally replay Wentz’s throws a dozen times during film sessions, watching in awe, Haeg says. The defensive line coach, meanwhile, joked with Wentz every time he walked by the quarterbacks meeting room that Wentz should switch positions so he could play. Dudzik recalls Klieman talking in practice about Wentz making throws he had only ever seen Joe Flacco make (Klieman coached at Northern Iowa while Flacco was at Delaware).
As time went on, some even thought Wentz was better than Jensen. A quarterback controversy never ensued, however, because Jensen went 47-5 as a starter, won three FCS National Championships and broke a plethora of program records.
“Before Brock’s last year, I knew Carson was better than Brock,” says Jedre Cyr, a fullback who was Wentz’s teammate all five years. “It was clear he was really good. You saw him make plays in practice, and then you saw Brock make plays, and you realized, ‘Wow, Carson really is that good.’
“Some of those throws in practice… man. You’re just like, ‘Holy shit.’ He’d fit the ball into you, and you’d say, ‘How the hell did he see this?’ The stuff he sees before it happens is ridiculous.”
Wentz’s work ethic and film study also played a big role in why some thought he was even better than the guy who rarely lost. Several teammates now estimate Wentz watched ten times more film than Jensen, which they insist is not a knock on the starter, but a signal of how hard the backup worked.
Wentz, meanwhile, tried to remain as silent as he could, biding his time before he got his chance on Saturdays. That period as a backup is where he learned patience, friends say, and it ignited a development in his game because his football knowledge grew.
“I learned a lot about myself,” Wentz says. “While I wasn’t playing, I was just diving in. I wanted to learn as much football as I could and soak up as much as I could from the playbook, defensive schemes, the whole nine yards.”
CARSON, SCOTTY AND A TREE
North Dakota State quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg isn’t surprised Wentz’s teammates rally around him so much.
“Carson leads because he’s so well respected by his teammates,” Hedberg says. “He’s a great young man.”
Hedberg points to last summer when he, his wife and the Bison’s three quarterbacks visited Scotty Miller, the North Dakota State play-by-play man who battled cancer for four years before passing away in February. Hedberg asked his quarterbacks to do yard work at Miller’s house, but was surprised when he found Wentz in a tree at 9 p.m. still cutting tree branches down.
“Scotty was very thankful, but he was also concerned Carson would fall out of the tree,” Hedberg says, laughing. “That tells you something about him.”
Or how about the previous year, Hedberg adds, when Wentz heard about a young man who also attended Century High School — though the two didn’t know each other — and was in the intensive care unit after an accident.
“Unbeknownst to myself, he went up to the hospital and saw that young man,” Hedberg says. “He never said a word to anybody, and I haven’t talked to him about it since. Character is measured in how someone acts when no one is looking, and that tells you right there about Carson Wentz.”
Wentz’s teammates say that character and leadership are why some thought he should’ve been a captain as an underclassman, even when he was a backup to Jensen. Eventually, when Wentz did start his junior year, he helped lead three fourth-quarter comebacks in four FCS playoff games, including a couple in the final two minutes of the game, earning the Most Outstanding Player award in the 2014 title game.
“When it came to those situations, no one was nervous, no one was questioning whether we could get it done or not. They all believed without a doubt we could get it done because we had the type of leader in Carson that we had, and the way that he walked up to the huddle, same calm demeanor as always, just get the job done,” Dudzik says.
“That doesn’t just happen game to game, that’s something you develop with your teammates over an entire offseason, and guys can trust that you’re going to be there, and that you’re going to be a leader for them. I think that’s just it: a developed confidence that everyone had in him and that he had in them.”
‘HE WAS PRETTY PISSED’
Wentz threw his Samsung Galaxy through a door in the house he shared with four roommates two blocks from campus, breaking his phone when he first heard the news.
“He was pretty pissed off,” Leopaldt, who lived with Wentz in college, says.
Minutes later, Bohn walked into the living room where Wentz and his girlfriend, Melissa, sat on a three-seat couch in silence with the lights off.
“I gotta go to the phone store,” Wentz told Bohn, holding the broken device in his hand.
“That was really out of character for him, because he’s usually not that kind of guy,” Bohn says. “But he had to let something out.”
Wentz had just gotten the call that he broke his right wrist hours before against the University of South Dakota, a team North Dakota State lost to at home for the first time since 1978. Wentz suffered his injury on the second drive of the game, but he thought it was a sprain, so athletic trainers taped him up and he returned to throw two touchdown passes and zero interceptions.
“I was crushed,” Wentz now says. “It was tough.”
The quarterback wondered whether his college career was over, and some of his friends did, too. During this time, those close to Wentz say he leaned heavily on his faith, as he so often does when he encounters challenges.
Wentz has his life motto — AO1, which stands for Audience of 1 — tattooed on the same wrist he broke seven months ago.
“Living for the Lord as my audience, it keeps me really grounded and it keeps me humble,” Wentz says. “My faith helps me never get too high, never get too low about things, such as when I broke my wrist or when we lose. I believe there’s a plan.”
The day after he found out about his wrist, however, coaches say he was already back in the film room helping his backup, Easton Stick. Wentz’s competitiveness didn’t die down just because he was hurt, so he wanted to help the Bison win even when he wasn’t on the field. And he also wanted his team to advance deep into the playoffs so he had a shot at playing one more game for North Dakota State.
Stick quarterbacked the Bison to eight consecutive wins with Wentz out, totaling 18 touchdowns and three interceptions during that stretch. Stick’s performance set the table for a storybook ending, as Wentz, who was cleared the week of the championship game, returned against Jacksonville State and led North Dakota State to a 37-10 win, clinching a record-breaking fifth consecutive title.
Wentz threw one touchdown pass and a pair of interceptions, but he led the Bison in rushing with 79 yards on nine carries for two scores, earning the game’s MVP award.
“Can you imagine coming into that setting having not played in two months and playing the way he did?” Hedberg asks. “That just shows his character, competitive fire and how great of a teammate he is. And he was just a great mentor to our young quarterbacks.”
Hedberg vividly remembers the throw that made him think Wentz could have a future in the NFL. North Dakota State trailed South Dakota State in the second round of the 2014 FCS playoffs in the closing minutes when Wentz, in his first collegiate postseason game, led the Bison on a 76-yard drive, culminating in a 12-yard touchdown pass with 54 seconds remaining.
“I can still see the play, and it’s one of my favorite plays,” Hedberg says. “He was so poised on the play fake, and he threw a strike into the corner of the end zone. There was only one place he could throw it for a completion, and he was right on the money.
“At that point, I thought, ‘This young man has a future. He’s just got it all. He’s so poised, and he’s so in command of our offense.’ It’s impressive. It really is.”
Although he didn’t think Wentz would be the second overall selection in the draft, Hedberg told any NFL scout who would listen that he thought the quarterback had a high ceiling. Hedberg noted how Wentz has only started two-and-a-half seasons at quarterback between high school and college, and the rapid growth in his game at North Dakota State.
There were three very noticeable improvements in Wentz’s game, Hedberg says: his footwork in the pocket, his ability to keep his arm and feet in phase to throw in a rhythm and his accuracy on deep throws.
“He was overlooked coming out of high school, but his improvement from his first year of college to now is just tremendous, and I think he has so much more improvement to make,” Hedberg says. “And that improvement came because he really works. He just gets better and better in the offseason.”
The Bison also wanted to take advantage of their quarterback’s intelligence and film study, so they scrapped the idea of having him just call the offensive line protections at the line of scrimmage. Instead, they sometimes only told him the personnel they were sending on the field, leaving Wentz to call any play he wanted — run or pass — out of any formation.
“He’s active with game plans, and he wants to be a part of putting that together for your opponent,” Hedberg says. “He’ll be the first guy in and the last guy out because he’s going to work at it. He has a coach’s mentality. If there’s anybody I’ve ever worked with who’s been close to a coach, it’s him.”
Hedberg, who was an eighth-round pick in the 1977 NFL Draft and played in seven games his rookie season for the Buccaneers, emphasized how important is it for a young player to have veteran quarterbacks around him to assist his development. He noted that Wentz’s ability to process information quickly at the line of scrimmage is what makes him unique, but how he can still improve on his movement within the pocket while also keeping a good base when he throws the ball.
He also thinks he knows why Wentz’s stock soared during the months without football before the draft: because of how good Wentz is when talking about protections, concepts and reads.
“I think his competitiveness came up, and also his individual meetings with coaching staffs. When they saw him on the board, it was a big plus for him,” he says. “I think that’s the most impressive thing he does: when you get him in the meeting room, he’s tremendous. He’s talented not only on the field, but also in the classroom.”
That competitiveness is what Hedberg thinks will endear Wentz to Eagles fans, which is something the quarterback noted when he was introduced to the Philadelphia press corps for the first time. It’s unclear whether Wentz will be everything the Eagles hope he’ll be — a franchise quarterback and someone who will lead them to that elusive Lombardi Trophy — but it appears Wentz already sees himself in the place he’ll call home for the next few years.
“They’re passionate here,” Wentz says, “they hate losing and I’m like, ‘Heck, I fit right in!'”