Photography by David Michael Howarth
Let’s start with a fun fact. Actually, it’s more of a delicious irony, a tasty morsel of Eagles history that has miraculously come back to life: Carson Wentz, the Eagles first-round pick and the quarterback who has been asked to bring championship football back to Philadelphia, is wearing No. 11, the number he wore in college. The last quarterback to pilot the Eagles to an NFL championship was Norm Van Brocklin – way back in 1960. He wore No. 11.
After I dropped that enormously unfair omen on the doorstep of his fledgling professional career, Wentz winced, then smiled: “I didn’t know that.”
Well, now you do.
That brief conversation happened on the day Wentz was drafted, five months ago. Fast forward to late July, the first day of Eagles training camp in the asphalt jungle that is South Philadelphia, temperatures climbing into the high 90s, the heat index crossing into the no man’s land of triple digits. Across Pattison Avenue, the Democratic National Convention is having its first day of protestors, police barricades and promises of a new beginning – just like at Eagles training camp.
On the field, a blanket of humidity shortens every breath you take. Wentz hops from drill to drill like a young colt just let out of the barn. And when he lifts his helmet for a drink during a break, his boyish grin stands out and sets the mood.
Call him Kid Carson.
After practice, we’re about to interview him for SportsCenter, but before the camera rolls, I roll out Fun Fact No. 2: I tell Wentz this is my 23rd season covering the NFL. He tells me he’s 23 years old. It’s officially the first time that I’m interviewing an Eagles rookie who was born the same year I started reporting about the team. We look at each other, and then there is that smile – and we’re good.
This is what you immediately like about Carson Wentz, and what rookie head coach Doug Pederson and general manager Howie Roseman fell in love with back on Wentz’s workout day at North Dakota State in March. Ron Jaworski was there that day, too. I remember the phone call I got from Jaws that afternoon, after Wentz finished creating a coast-to-coast buzz about his arm strength and accuracy for NFL coaches, front-office executives and scouts from nearly all 32 teams. But Jaws, on his way to the airport, had to tell me first: “He’s got it. He’s got an it factor. He’s ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ Mature. Great upbringing. He’s not going to let anything bother him. He’s perfect for Philadelphia. Perfect.”
It was on that day that Pederson, Roseman and team owner Jeffrey Lurie pretty much decided they would do whatever it took to bring the Whole Carson Wentz Package to Philly.
But this would be no High Plains Drifter wandering into the Big City. This would be Kid Carson rides into town to Save the Day. Like Donovan McNabb in ’99. Except one thing: McNabb was prickly and prone to insecurities from day one. He had good reason – he got booed on draft day on national TV, because he wasn’t Ricky Williams.
So, this is Lurie’s do-over. Back to the Future: Andy Reid 2.0. Wentz has been the chosen one from the start. Since day one, he’s been a natural, handling the national spotlight and the Philadelphia media with a simple blend of aw-shucks attitude and alacrity. In another life, he would be Ensign Wentz just out of Annapolis: Looks you in the eye, answers your question, doesn’t sound too rehearsed – although he’s repeated this line a lot:
“I’m going to go out and attack it and get better every day,” Wentz says when asked about sitting behind veteran under-achiever Sam Bradford and journeyman Chase Daniel throughout the summer. “That’s the same approach I’ve had since I was a little kid.”
Of course, once Wentz starts to play in real games at Lincoln Financial Field and his rookie growing pains pimple to the surface, he’ll have to field a tougher line of questions – and deal with that special blend of passion and acrimony that Eagles fans have every right to possess. You wait 56 years, you watch the other teams in your division walk away with the Lombardi Trophy 12 times, you got a right to be impatient. Just saying.
And consider this not-so-fun fact: The Eagles have not won a playoff game since 2008, a drought way too long for a team in a major market – especially considering that each year Lurie makes enough money to put him in the top five of NFL revenue generators. That was six starting quarterbacks ago, and more than $125 million invested in the position – that’s a lot of money, your money.
The Eagles brain trust has put the future on the line again with Wentz. Allowing him to get jostled, attacked, whacked and smacked around in the first preseason game, resulting in a cracked rib, was like, well, letting your kid play kickball in the middle of Springdale Road.
Which brings us to Fun Fact No. 3: Philadelphia is the fourth largest media market in the country. Fargo, North Dakota, where Wentz grew up, is ranked 115th. To compare, the smallest media market of any NFL city is Green Bay, Wisconsin, which is 58th in the nation.
For a further comparison, North Dakota has 11 people per square mile, ranked 47th in the country (only Wyoming, Montana and Alaska have lower population density). Wentz got a place in South Jersey – and, as everybody who lives here knows, New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the union: 1,200 people per square mile. Eleven versus 1,200 people per square mile – huge difference.
It’s a long way from the simple life of North Dakota to the cultural anarchy of a town that hosted Hillary’s convention and the Pope’s visit. But, privately or publicly, Wentz has revealed no evidence of maladjustment. And this is a guy who scheduled his classes at North Dakota State so he could go goose hunting in the morning. That doesn’t happen at Rutgers or Rowan.
There were more people at the Eagles’ open practice at the Linc in late July – 18,276 fans – than normally attended Wentz’s games at North Dakota State. “I was a little surprised, to be honest, with how many people were here for a practice,” Wentz says. “I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I guess I’m getting used to the craziness that this place is. It’s pretty special, pretty cool.” This is what you hear from Wentz. There is no poetry in his voice. He just plays the message in the bar. Not a lot of extra notes.
This is what concerned many coaches and scouts. How would Wentz handle bright lights, big city? Does his game have that critical chromosome to deal with the dynamic range of playing pro football when the opponents are constantly changing their game plan, not only week by week, but quarter by quarter, play by play? NFL football is a game of adjustment. You can’t do it by rote.
So far, so good – according to the coaches around him. But, they say, you never know until the games get real.
“Am I worried about whether I can have success at the next level? Of course not,” he wrote on the Players Tribune. “I’m excited to show people what I can do.”
But he realizes that will take time. “Every day is a process,” he admits. “There is a lot of knowledge to soak up.”
“You love everything about this kid, his energy, his work ethic,” says Pederson, who lives in Moorestown. “It’s just the little things. He does the little things right. That tells me he’s got a chance to be special.”
In the meantime, Wentz has settled into a small town in South Jersey. (We’re not going to advertise where he lives, for obvious reasons. His neighbors know. They’re excited, but respectful.) He’s living alone for now. He says he and his girlfriend Melissa have vowed not to live together until they are married. (Yes, you just read that sentence in the year 2016. Cool, right?)
Final fun fact: Did he know that McNabb lived in SJ, and Jaws still makes his home here?
“I didn’t know that,” he says.
“Now you do,” I reply, adding: “If you have great success here, you may never leave. How about that?”
I get the Kid Carson smile. Then he quickly says: “That’d be pretty cool.”
Sal Paolantonio, a national correspondent for ESPN, is the author of the best-selling “How Football Explains America.” He lives in Moorestown.