North Dakota is happy to share Carson Wentz

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BISMARCK, N.D - The drive from Fargo, N.D., to here is a nearly 200-mile, three-hour, straight-line stretch of I-94. The steering wheel keeps the heavy wind from rocking the car out of its lane. This is the trip Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz made any time he drove between his Bismarck home and North Dakota State University.

There is little to see on this ride, locals warn. Halfway through, in Jamestown, a 46-foot-long, 60-ton statue billed as the world's largest buffalo is visible for a few-mile stretch. Drive back to Bismarck, and there are white signs that don't advertise a company but instead an ethos.

BE NICE

BE POLITE

Talk to enough people in this area, and there's a term that becomes repetitive: "North Dakota nice." The attendant at the airport rental car extended his hand. A woman at the front desk at the hotel laughed about a resident offering a ride from the airport to a Philadelphia reporter, as if there's no need for Uber in Bismarck when there are 69,000 helpful citizens. And, by the way, there is no Uber.

"Being from North Dakota, I've always thought about it as being a positive," Wentz said before the draft. "A lot of people want to view it as a negative. . . . It's just that work ethic. Nothing's handed to you in North Dakota. You earn what you get, and you work for it."

This sentiment can be shared about other locations. LeBron James used it to describe Northeast Ohio, and an athlete from Philadelphia could recite a similar trope when talking about his hometown. 

But this is the world in which Wentz existed, and North Dakotans are both proud and protective of their quarterback. It's not just because he played in North Dakota and not just because he's from North Dakota, but they speak about him as if he is North Dakota.

"As you get to know Carson, and people get to know Carson, that's the best image of North Dakota you can get," said Easton Stick, Wentz's backup quarterback last season.

Wentz declined, from North Dakota, to participate for this story, and he did not want his family or roommates to speak, either. He is decompressing after a four-month, predraft ascension and is days from leaving the cocoon in his home state for the Eagles' rookie camp. Wentz is no longer just North Dakota's. He's Philadelphia's, too.

'Wentz-a-palooza' 

In the center of a Fargo sporting goods store, down the stairs from the hunting section that Wentz frequents and next to the Ferris wheel that turns shopping into an amusement park, there are two mannequins dressed in a North Dakota State No. 11 jersey and an Eagles No. 1 jersey.

The No. 1 is holding the spot until Wentz's new Philadelphia jersey arrives. (He'll wear No. 11.) Nike sent Eagles gear on the day after the draft, and there is already demand. They never carried Eagles merchandise before. The son of Jim Kramer, NDSU's director of athletic performance, already bought an Eagles helmet for Wentz to sign.

An 8-year-old boy from Fargo, Aiden Simek, took a selfie in front of the mannequins. His has signed posters from Wentz at home. Others in the store held similar fondness for Wentz, sharing their own tales and encounters.

"It's Wentz-a-palooza around here," said Eric Simek, Aiden's father. "We're a small state. When somebody does good, everybody jumps on."

From bar stools to bicycles, sidewalks to student unions, it doesn't take many degrees to reach a connection to Wentz. Whether it's someone who had class with him, ate lunch with him in the cafeteria, received a loan from his father, or used to live near his mother, it's easy to find testimonials 200 miles apart.

At the Wife's Barber in downtown Bismarck, Wentz is a popular conversation during haircuts. One problem: The 6 p.m. appointments were canceled on April 28 by patrons who wanted to make sure they could watch the NFL draft at 7 p.m. to see Wentz selected.

Walk down Broadway in Fargo, past the Fargo Theater and through a small downtown area of local shops, and there's an office for gubernatorial candidate Doug Burgum. Working one of the desks is Ryan Domres, Wentz's stepbrother. The random encounter revealed just how small the state is. 

And that's part of Wentz's appeal. He's not just a character on the football field and in interviews. There's a population of around 760,000 in North Dakota, about 25 percent of which live in either Wentz's hometown or where he spent five years in college. They know him.

"This is not an everyday occasion," Domres said. "It's a huge deal for us."

Margie Trickle, who has been an administrative assistant for NDSU football for more than 31 years, sees actor Josh Duhamel on commercials and brochures promoting North Dakota. She's waiting for the tall redhead who greeted her by name for the last five years to take those spots.

"We're going to see Carson Wentz doing that, promoting North Dakota, and it'll be a face everyone recognizes," Trickle said. "It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it."

Taught break dancing 

In her classroom at Century High School in Bismarck, English teacher Trisha Martin conceded that the nation must be fatigued by all the Wentz praise. She takes solace in insisting it's all true - the 4.0 grade point average, the humility, the sincerity.

"I think North Dakota gets such a bad rap," Martin said. "And I think that we have someone coming out of here who does have it all - the smarts, the work ethic. . . . He's a great representative of what North Dakota is about."

Wentz has never received a B, a popular nugget in stories about him. The closest he came was a college psychology class as a freshman, when there was confusion about time missed because of football. He recovered to keep his A.

What his teachers valued about the perfect GPA is the way he achieved it. Natural intelligence is a factor, but he also displayed the industriousness that North Dakotans see in themselves.

On road basketball trips in high school, Wentz sat next to coach Darin Mattern and did his homework. Ron Wingenbach, the head football coach who also taught Wentz precalculus, remembered that wrong answers on a test or quiz were scrutinized until they were understood.

Jenny Linker, an assistant professor in the NDSU department of health, nutrition and exercise science, taught Wentz for four years. One of the assignments was a novelty lesson in which students needed to learn something unusual to teach. Linker assigned Wentz break dancing.

"Really?" Wentz replied.

"Let's see what you've got," Linker said.

So Wentz immersed himself in break dancing. He came to class with a bucket hat and Hawaiian shirt and looked like he could work parties.

"He could do the six step," Linker said. "And he went out to a middle school with his teaching partner, and they taught it with the middle school kids. He's something special."

They know him most from what he's done on the football field. Wentz grew from a 5-foot-8 high school freshman to a standout quarterback under Wingenbach, and by the end of his senior year NDSU wanted him, and Central Michigan was interested. Wentz needed a hearty appetite to accompany the spurt - Kramer cooked steaks last spring, and Wentz ate three pieces of 12-ounce cuts to put him ahead of some offensive linemen. He weighs 237 pounds now, about 30 pounds more than when he arrived in college.

Wentz waited three years on the bench before leading the Bison to a national championship in 2014. After breaking his wrist in 2015, Wentz did not leave the team and prepare for the draft. He remained on the sideline hoping for a chance to return if the Bison advanced in the postseason. He played in the final game to secure NDSU's fifth consecutive title. What kind of message would it have sent North Dakota if he left?

"As hard as a situation as that was for him to sit out three years and wait his turn and playing really well, for it to be taken away, he was my biggest supporter, team's biggest supporter," said Stick, who went undefeated in eight games as the starter. "Watching film, studying film, preparing like he's going to play. He had a huge role in those eight games."

After the Senior Bowl and the combine, the buzz about Wentz reached a crescendo. From Herd and Horns sports bar in Fargo to the Community Bowl in Bismarck, where a fund-raiser was held draft night celebrating Wentz, the state prepared for a new shade of green: from Bison green to Eagles green.

"I was in tears," Linker said. "You want it to be a deserving person."

Not prepackaged 

Throughout North Dakota, Wentz supporters have seen the footage from the Philadelphia airport when Wentz was hounded for autographs and booed upon getting whisked away. They ask whether the reputation of Philadelphia fans is true. "North Dakota nice" is not how talk-radio stations would be described after a quarterback throws three interceptions against the Giants.

"That's where character kicks in," said Hal Rosenbluth, who splits time between the Philadelphia area and a ranch about 60 miles south of Bismarck.

Rosenbluth, the former travel executive who remains an Eagles season ticket holder, knows the differences between the locales. It takes him the same time to get from Bismarck to his ranch as it does from Conshohocken to Philadelphia at rush hour. You'll see people in cars wave to each other in North Dakota. In Philadelphia, Rosenbluth joked, they would look away.

"You can't equate nice with not being tough," Rosenbluth said. "Nice and tough are the same thing out here. . . . Most people out here are tough to begin with, or you probably wouldn't be in North Dakota. You'd choose to leave."

In North Dakota, Wentz is beloved unconditionally. He wasn't a prepackaged franchise quarterback, the product of pedigreed programs and year-round quarterback grooming. He's the kid from Bismarck who so many know, who likes to hunt and eat steak and doesn't mind North Dakota winters. He earned the approval of those who punch the clock even when the temperature is 20-below, who must find ways around droughts or a busted oil boom. That's something Philadelphians can appreciate, Rosenbluth said.

The question Wingenbach has been asked more than any other in recent weeks is how Wentz will handle the adjustment. In North Dakota, they want to think that even though Lincoln Financial Field could seat all of Wentz's hometown, and there are more people in Philadelphia than his home state, the state's values will endure.

"We have a saying around here: 'You can't fake farming,' " Rosenbluth said. "Something either grows or it doesn't grow. So there's no need to try to create a false image of yourself."

The cocoon has opened, and Wentz is leaving. And there are no billboards on Broad Street about being nice and polite. He now carries the burden of a city - not just the pride of a state.

zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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