FARGO, N.D. – Here, they want everyone to remember Carson Wentz. Here, in the state where Wentz grew up and in the town where he played college football for North Dakota State, they want Philadelphia, in particular, to remember that the Eagles would not be in Super Bowl LII, preparing to play the New England Patriots on Sunday, without him.
They want everyone to remember Wentz’s team-record 33 touchdown passes. And the 11 Eagles victories in his 13 games this season. And the scuttlebutt that Wentz would be the NFL’s most valuable player. And the supportive hand he has lent to Nick Foles. And his AO1 Foundation. And his breath-catching escape acts on that Monday night game against the Redskins. And the green bracelet that he wore to honor the memory and courage of an 8-year-old boy from Delaware, Lukas Kusters, whose nickname was “The Dutch Destroyer” and who died of cancer last year. And all the other moments of greatness and grace that the mind might jettison like ballast now that Wentz’s left anterior cruciate ligament is torn and he is a spectator on the sideline and, somehow, the Eagles are still in position to win a championship.
It’s not that people here believe that Wentz has been forgotten over these last several weeks, as Foles has shepherded the Eagles to four victories in five games, including two in the NFC playoffs. It’s that the circumstances of the Eagles’ appearance in this Super Bowl — in Minneapolis, just 235 miles to the southeast — are so strange and a little sad for them. The notion that the Eagles would be here and that Wentz would not be starting for them at quarterback, or playing in the game at all, was a concept too incongruous to contemplate before Dec. 10, when Wentz took a hit as he dived toward the end zone in a game against the Los Angeles Rams, stood up gingerly, threw a touchdown pass two plays later, and never returned to the field.
“Everyone in the state watched every snap he took,” North Dakota governor Doug Burgum said in a phone interview, “and when the play happened everyone held their breath. And then there was shock and hurt and disbelief.”
There’s no modern approximation for the pride that Wentz has inspired among those who know him well, met him once or twice, or watched him from afar. At another, earlier time, when it came to embodying the humility and work ethic that North Dakotans say they prize so much, the local lodestar was former Yankees and Cardinals great Roger Maris, who grew up in Fargo and whose grave, after he died in 1985, became a kind of sacred tourist attraction here. Now, it’s Wentz, and there isn’t a close second.
“It’s not a very big state,” said Jeff Kolpack, who covers North Dakota State’s sports programs for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. “So you’re not going to have heroes every decade.”
To appreciate the affection for Wentz and the disappointment over his inability to play Sunday, one needs only to make the 3½-to-4-hour drive here from Minneapolis. On Tuesday morning, that drive – tracing an upward hypotenuse as you headed west on I-94 – was a numbing ride through incredible cold toward a vast grayness above the horizon, past exit signs for Elbow Lake and Fergus Falls and Otter Tail County and the Middle Spunk Rest Area, past acres of brown soil and dull tans and greens and leafless trees with branches like twisted fork prongs. There wasn’t a single bird in the sky.
The NFL’s best young quarterback came out of this? No wonder people here treat North Dakota State’s football program as if it were a professional sports franchise – the Bison have won the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision national title five of the last six years – and regard Wentz as if he were something more than a mere man. “There’s nothing else here,” Kolpack said.
Wentz returns to Fargo once or twice each year. He often visits The Herd and Horns, a pub near campus, where he can shoot pool or throw darts in the game room and be one of the guys again, secure in the knowledge that Brent Tehven, the restaurant’s general manager and one of its owners, will do whatever possible to preserve his privacy. “We try to leave him alone as much as we can,” Tehven said, “so he comes back.”
Tehven, 36, was born just outside Fargo, on a 1,500-acre farm where his family grew grain, soybeans, and corn. “Around here, that’s kind of a hobby farm,” said Tehven, whose father worked full-time at a bank. He doesn’t put bison burgers on the pub’s menu because “you don’t eat the mascot.” That Wentz returns to Fargo at all is an indication, Tehven said, of his character — that he has pride in his home state, that he hasn’t grown haughty or self-superior and never will, that “this isn’t a Podunk town with no cell phones and no indoor plumbing. It’s just like anywhere else.”
His excellence this season did not turn everyone here into Eagles fans. Eighty percent of NFL fans in North Dakota, Burgum estimated, root for the Eagles’ opponent in this year’s NFC championship game, the Minnesota Vikings, and resentment lingers over the inappropriate treatment that some of those fans endured last week at Lincoln Financial Field. One resident wrote a letter to the editor to The Forum, arguing that Wentz should have admonished Eagles fans for their actions in the hopes that they would change their behavior. (Kolpack responded with a blog post headlined: “Carson Wentz is not God.”) Jenny Linker, an assistant professor in the NDSU department of health, nutrition and exercise science who taught Wentz in each of his four years at the school, described a kind of unspoken quid pro quo between Philadelphia and Fargo, as if Eagles fans agreed to a bargain then didn’t hold up their end of it. “It’s like, hey, we just gave you one of our own,” Linker said, “and we have folks down there who are visiting your city and would like to have been treated better.”
In that context, people here don’t view Wentz’s injury as a calamity that threatened to destroy the Eagles’ Super Bowl aspirations. They view it as a disheartening jolt of reality, a bad break for the best among them and, in turn, a bad break for them. In Wentz’s senior season with the Bison, he missed eight games with a broken wrist, only to return in the national championship game and lead North Dakota State to victory. “I understood that wasn’t going to happen with this injury,” said Bison head coach Chris Klieman, who watched the Eagles-Rams game in his office during a break from analyzing game film. “It was a pretty somber day the next day, among the guys who knew him well.” His absence from the Super Bowl is a missed opportunity for him to represent the region on the greatest and grandest of stages. At the Moorhead location of Scheels, a sporting-goods-store chain with whom Wentz struck one of his first endorsement deals, the only Eagles apparel was Wentz apparel: Wentz jerseys, Wentz plaques, Wentz footballs. Those who live here hurt for him, not necessarily for the Eagles.
“I’m really not sure how to feel,” said Jay Bartley, an insurance agent and a booster of the NDSU football program. “I really respect what Foles has done, but I also want the city to respect how they got to that level.”
A western Massachusetts native with undergraduate degrees from UMass and Westfield State College, Linker is a good example of this compartmentalization. She is an enthusiastic football fan, especially of one team. She has a Patriots calendar hanging on her office wall, and she keeps it open to a peculiar month, September 2014, for a particular reason: Above the chessboard grid of dates is a perfect photo of Tom Brady, his eyes downfield, his arm cocked. Since the second week of the NFL season, she said, her students have asked her who she would root for if both the Patriots and the Eagles reached the Super Bowl.
“My response was, ‘Obviously, the Patriots. I’ve been with them all my life. I’ve been with Tom Brady for 17 years. He’s been my secret boyfriend that whole time,” she said. “I love Carson to death and would be cheering for him, but I would want the Patriots to outperform the Eagles. I think people are learning to cheer for … is it ‘Foles?’”
It is, and perhaps those who revere Wentz are just coming to terms with the still-surprising truth that the Eagles’ season didn’t fall apart without him. Just after noon on Tuesday, The Herd and Horns filled up with a weekday lunchtime crowd. Three former NDSU football players sat at the bar, plates of food in front of them. Faculty members eat at the restaurant often, and two middle-aged men in tweed jackets enjoyed a meal in a private room. Locals and students chomped on burgers (all-beef, of course).
A dozen televisions were positioned around the pub, above the bar and high on the walls, and each of them was tuned to The NFL Network, which showed a 30-second string of highlights from the 2017 season. There was Brady, beating the Houston Texans with a last-second touchdown pass. There was Todd Gurley, the Rams’ gifted tailback, a blur streaking into the end zone. There was spectacular play after spectacular play. And there was Carson Wentz, once, twice, a third time, throwing, running, slapping a teammate’s hand. No one in the place looked up at any of the televisions. It had been a chance, quick and fleeting, to watch Carson Wentz play football again, to remember what he had done to help the Eagles reach the Super Bowl, and none of them had taken it.