The Gospel according to Carson Wentz

Carson Wentz is in love. He wants to tell the world. But sometimes he can’t.

If his significant other were named Sue or Jane, no one would mind. But Wentz is in love with Jesus, and while many share his devotion, he understands that just as many may not.

As a Christian, Wentz believes that he has an obligation to use his platform as an NFL quarterback to be a disciple and spread God’s word. But some Eagles fans — and even some of his teammates — might not want to hear it from their quarterback.

“You’re always walking that fine line, without a doubt,” Wentz said recently. “I always tell people, for example, ‘If you love your job, you love your wife, you love what you do, you’re going to talk about it. Well, I love Jesus.’ That’s what I love, so I’m going to talk about it. But I’m not going to force it down your throat either.”

Wentz, who begins his second season on Sunday when the Eagles open the season at the Redskins, doesn’t come off as preachy. He said he doesn’t want to beat “people over the head with the Bible.” But he is outspoken about his belief.

In June, Wentz delivered a 30-minute sermon at the First Assembly Church of Fargo, N.D. He often wears shirts and hats with religious messages to his news conferences. His pet motto is “AO1” or “Audience of One.” The acronym, which is tattooed on his wrist and is the name of his newly formed foundation, is typically emblazoned on the clothing.

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Wentz’s social media timelines are splattered – along with posts and images of football, hunting and his dog — with scripture passages and testimonials like the pinned tweet atop his Twitter page:

While most of the notifications from his 380,000-something followers are positive — “I’m so thrilled you’re my quarterback!” wrote @almpvnj. “Keep sharing the Gospel Carson! My favorite thing about you.” wrote @DizzyJHolla23.

There are occasionally snarky responses.

“I’ve tried to honestly avoid reading stuff on social media. But I have seen things here and there. It is what it is,” Wentz said. “But they’re still reading it, they’re still following me. They’re still hearing what I believe to be true, so it’s a fine line.”

During his Fargo sermon, Wentz said he prayed almost daily before the draft last year that he would land with a team where he could “grow closer to God.” He worried about entering a locker room with a variety of players from different backgrounds and with a different set of beliefs, and that he wouldn’t find a community of like-minded teammates.

“For him, that’s one of toughest things, just the fact that he’s from North Dakota and he hasn’t — I’m not saying he doesn’t have people skills – had a ton of interactions with a ton of people being from up there,” Eagles tight end Trey Burton said. “He wasn’t as outgoing when he first got here because he didn’t know who he could trust, and who he could say stuff around, and them not tell the world.

“But he’s definitely found his guys, his guys that he can trust and talk to.”

Wentz gravitated toward tight end Zach Ertz, linebacker Jordan Hicks, safety Chris Maragos, then-Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews and Burton. They call themselves a “brotherhood.” They pray together, attend Bible study together, speak at Fellowship of Christian Athletes events together, and socialize outside of football and faith together.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / File Photograph
Eagles’ Carson Wentz, left, and Trey Burton, right, walk off the field together after the loss to the Giants on November 6, 2016.

In May, Wentz traveled on a three-day mission to impoverished Haiti with Matthews. Kyle Horner, the lead pastor at Connect Church in Cherry Hill, where the players worship, organized the trip. Wentz would later say during his Fargo sermon that he returned from Haiti with a new sense of urgency.

“We were sharing the Gospel through a translator in another language, traveled across the ocean to do this,” Wentz said, via an online video of the sermon. “And I’m over there sitting at the end of the night after we did this. I just did all of this to share the Gospel, but I can barely turn to the guy sitting next to me in my locker room and tell him about the Gospel.”

Wentz said he challenged himself to be on a daily mission and to be more intentional in his conversations. While he has formed relationships with many Eagles, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, he and the others from his circle had noticed that they had become identified as a clique.

When Matthews was traded to the Bills last month, the six had dinner together at Bar Amis in the Navy Yard before driving the distraught receiver to the airport.

“That’s something that was really challenging for us last year, because that’s the last thing we want to be is cliquey,” Burton said. “We want to be accepting and open to everybody. So that’s why there’s a time for all of us to be together, and there’s a time for us to be separated and talk and hang out with separate people.”

Wentz could continue to preach and spend time only with the already-converted. But, as he noted in his sermon, he has a platform larger than most pastors. He said it’s not his job to change people, but it is to “plant that seed.” He knows he can help change lives.

“Without a doubt. And that’s the bigger picture I talk about with the foundation and helping make a difference there,” Wentz said. “Going and speaking at events or even social media can be very impactful in what you share, what you post. Some people that don’t like that stuff, maybe they shouldn’t follow me on social media. But that’s just what I’m about.”

Camera icon AP
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz speaks with members of the media during an NFL football training camp in Philadelphia, Friday, Aug. 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Make a difference

Wentz launched his “AO1” Foundation in July. The non-profit’s mission is to provide to those in need through his love of faith, the outdoors and dogs. Service dogs are to be provided to Philadelphia-area youth. Hunting and outdoor opportunities are to be given to military veterans and the disabled in the Midwest. And food, shelter and education are to be provided to underprivileged youth living abroad.

When Wentz first broached the idea of the foundation, he was told that most professional athletes wait until they are four to five years into their careers.

“I took their advice, thought about it, but I’m, like, I have no idea in four or five years where I’m going to be,” Wentz said. “God willing, I’m still playing this game, hopefully still here and everything. But you just never know, you’re not promised tomorrow. So I just said, ‘Why wait? Why wait to make a difference and help out?’ ”

Like how he approaches almost everything in his life, particularly football, Wentz has immersed himself in becoming a better Christian. Besides reading the Bible, he’s plunged himself into books on faith such as Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, or Jesus > Religion.

He created a devotional, a four-day video-and-verse series on YouVersion’s Bible app. Along with Burton, Hicks, Ertz, Maragos and Matthews, started “Professional Football Players on Humility and Surrender” – 15 days’ worth of testimonies from each player as to why Jesus is the No. 1 priority in their lives – on the app.

But Wentz, who is typically one of the first in and last out of the NovaCare Complex on practice days, said during his sermon he can’t earn salvation. Faith alone leads to salvation.

“I’m wired, especially as a football player, to work my tail off and earn whatever it is I’m going to get. … Boy, was I wrong,” Wentz said.

It is why, Wentz’s teammates said, he remains composed throughout the ups and downs of a football season.

“He’s probably one of most passionate guys about football, like a lot of guys in this locker room. But the difference is he realizes that all of his hope and trust isn’t based or determined upon his performance,” Maragos said. “We want him to be as good as he can be and as competitive and as fearless as possible. But he knows that’s not what gives him his worth.

“And guys want to hear more. They go, ‘Hey, Carson, you threw two picks today and you’re still happy. Why?’ It’s not that he’s, ‘Hey, I threw two picks and I’m happy.’ But he’s, like, ‘Hey, it didn’t crush me.’ ”

Aside from Wentz’s core group, there are a dozen or more Eagles who pray together and attend team chaplain Ted Winsley’s Thursday Bible class. The practice facility has also become a place for spiritual transformation. Last October, several players, including Hicks and linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, were baptized by Winsley and Burton in one of the training room cold tubs.

“I grew up with Christian faith, but it wasn’t exposed to me in the environment we have here,” Grugier-Hill said. “It has completely changed my life. It’s mostly a brotherhood of feeling safe and being able to realize that everyone has day-to-day struggles, but it’s OK to talk them out.”

The Eagles aren’t alone among NFL teams when it comes to having a heavy Christian presence in the locker room. Defensive end Chris Long, who previously played for the Rams and Patriots, said players of faith typically gravitate to one another. But the same could be said for those with other interests.

“I think there are some really good people in this locker room — men of faith, men not of faith,” said Long, who considers himself a Christian. “We all pray in a circle, but I’m sure there are people praying to someone or something else. At the end of the day, there are a wide variety of guys in the NFL.”

Playing in the NFL can be a stressful endeavor. From the risks the players take with their bodies, to the unguaranteed contracts, to the brevity of careers, many are searching for fulfillment. They reached the pinnacle of their profession, but football doesn’t always pay back years of investment.

“Everybody’s struggling. I’m struggling. Carson’s struggling,” Maragos said. “When we’re around guys who maybe aren’t Christians, or whoever it might be, and they’re struggling, ‘Hey, man, we got something better to offer.’ ”

Several Eagles declined interview requests when the subject of religion was broached. But some outside of Wentz’s circle, while acknowledging the group’s forthrightness, said that they have never felt pressured into joining the group.

“I’d love to see 53 brothers in Christ in here,” Hicks said, referring to the 53-man roster. “I think it would be strong. But you can’t demand or expect to go and convert everybody. People are brought up differently. People have their own beliefs and their own backgrounds, and we expect that.”

Camera icon CLEM MURRAY / File Photograph
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz stretches before the game against the Giants at MetLife Stadium November 6, 2016. Note the tattoo on his right wrist.

Beyond the game

And yet, Burton, Grugier-Hill and Ertz said those in the group came to realize last year that they had unintentionally become a clique, and, because of Wentz’s standing, some teammates may have felt left out.

“Regardless of faith or not, we were spending so much time together,” Burton said. “And we can understand, to a degree, where it might look a little cliquish just because we have our own sayings to each other. So I can understand why somebody would think that.

“But that’s why we have to look at ourselves and do a really good job of making sure that we’re always inviting, always accepting, and always loving on other people.”

New Eagles such as receiver Torrey Smith and quarterback Nick Foles, who led Bible studies during his previous stop in Philadelphia, were brought into the fold. With Foles, Wentz now has a teammate he can turn to in the locker stall and openly discuss the Gospel.

But the 24-year-old quarterback, who many say has natural leadership abilities, has gone outside his comfort zone. He has gone out to biweekly dinners with his offensive linemen during the season, and in April, had the crew over to his house in South Jersey for a barbecue and to shoot the Beretta Silver Pigeons he bought them after last season.

He also hosted the receivers in Fargo in July for informal workouts, but they also played golf, rode jet skis and had dinner together.

“It’s small things like that,” Burton said. “It’s him going out of his way and going somewhere else. Maybe someone who may not be a believer is having an event at his house and going to that.”

Wentz understands that the Eagles’ fan base is as diverse as the locker room and that the one thing that unifies them is a strict belief in winning the Super Bowl. So he will carefully walk the social media tightrope. He wants to bring Philly that elusive title, but his ambitions go beyond the game.

“I want to realize I have a platform for more than just winning football games,” Wentz said. “I want to make a difference all over the country, all over the world. Even if it’s just a little bit here and there and just help give people and kids hope, that’s what it’s all about.”

jmclane@phillynews.com
@Jeff_McLane