The National Football League needs a guy like Carson Wentz. Actually, the NFL needs a lot more guys like Wentz. The former North Dakota State quarterback and Bismarck, North Dakota native is, believe it or not, one of the leading candidates for the league’s Most Valuable Player award as we approach the midway point of the regular season. Oh, by the way, the Philadelphia Eagles have the NFL’s best record at 7–1, lead the NFC East by 2.5 games, and with a matchup Sunday versus the slumping Denver Broncos, are likely to be 8–1 heading into a key showdown versus Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys the weekend before Thanksgiving.
Wentz might be the biggest thing to hit the NFL since deflated footballs, national anthem protests and a myriad of legal proceedings that, unfortunately, are all too often centered around allegations of domestic violence. In other words, in a league desperate for a positive, feel-good story and solid leaders, a big “North Dakota tough” red-head that leads by example, places his teammates and organization above himself, exhibits humility and grace in a league marred by selfishness and grandiosity, has come riding into the scene. Pure and simple, Wentz isn’t just one of the best players in the NFL, he’s one of its best leaders. It’s why only 24 games into his professional career, he’s fast becoming one of the league’s public faces. While that’s quite a mouthful for a guy that wasn’t on many NFL radar screens in the fall of 2015, it’s entirely warranted.
Go back to his playing days for the Bison and listen to his teammates and coaches describe Wentz. The first thing wasn’t his playing ability, spectacular as it was. It was his leadership skills. It was how great a teammate and leader he was. This was the oft-repeated refrain: For as great a player as Carson is, he’s an even better person, leader and teammate. From guiding NDSU to back-to-back national championships his junior and senior year, Wentz is now inflicting that same helpless feeling on NFL defenses that the Missouri Valley Football Conference and rest of the Football Championship Subdivision felt. After his marquee performance against the Washington Redskins under the bright lights of Monday Night Football, Matt Entz, NDSU’s defensive coordinator, posted this tweet. “Don’t feel sorry for any of these NFL Def. Coordinators. Saw this daily for two years. Seen it 1st hand.” Entz was referring to Wentz’s days tormenting FCS defenses juxtaposed with his 17-of-25 performance versus Washington where he tossed four touchdowns, and, for good measure, added 63 yards rushing. The biggest run coming on a 17-yard fourth quarter scramble that saw Wentz somehow Houdini his way out of a pile of defenders for a first down that sealed the Eagles 34–24 victory.
Earlier, leading 17–10 in the third quarter, Wentz eluded several rushers and with the pocket collapsing escaped an all-but-certain sack, then with a defender dragging him down tossed a dime to Corey Clement, similar to the ones he used to throw to R.J. Urzendowski and Zach Vraa, for a third-and-goal touchdown. It was a familiar play. Wentz ran it at NDSU and insisted it be inserted into the Eagles playbook. Jon Gruden pounced on that following the score. “Carson Wentz is unbelievable. That’s the same play that they featured at North Dakota State. He went to Doug Pederson, he said, ‘I want to put this play in our offense.’ They threw it for a touchdown against the Giants, and now they throw it for a touchdown against the Redskins. How about that pocket toughness. How does he get away from all those free rushers and make throws like that,” exclaimed Gruden. Earlier in the game, Gruden described Wentz thusly, “He is not tough, he is North Dakota tough!”
Hundreds of thousands of Bison fans and fellow North Dakotans proudly smiled along with Gruden knowing damn right he’s North Dakota tough! He’s one of us, drives a pickup, isn’t afraid of hard work, likes to hunt, has a deeply held faith and just so happens to be one of the best football players on the planet.
Wentz is gun-slinging his way through some of the best NFL defenses like a well-tuned snowblower through six inches of fresh December snow. Through eight weeks, he leads the NFL in touchdown passes (19), has the third highest Total QBR, including a rating of at least 90 in the last five games, has the best passer rating on third down and has shown a propensity to make big plays in key moments with his feet and arm, something Bison fans and our opponents in the MVFC are all too familiar with. It’s a reason why the two-time MVP of the FCS national championship game is being mentioned by everyone from Scott Van Pelt, Ron Jaworski to Gruden as a bonafide contender for the NFL’s MVP award. The betting guys in Las Vegas have Wentz either atop their board with the best odds to win, or second only to Tom Brady.
But ask Bison fans, or any North Dakotan for that matter, about Wentz and it isn’t these numbers, the wins or any number of championships or awards why he means so much to Bison Nation and the Peace Garden state. It goes beyond that, beyond football, just as Wentz explained to ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi during a recent interview focused on his relationship with the Kusters family and their son, Lukas, aka, the Dutch Destroyer, who died this June after fighting a fierce battle with stomach cancer. The Kusters are big Eagles fans from the Philadelphia-area, and as Rinaldi so eloquently shared in his SportsCenter Feature, Wentz recorded a special video message for Lukas while the young boy courageously fought a disease that would ultimately take his life. After the video message, Lukas was able to spend an entire day with Wentz at the Eagles facility. During the visit, Lukas gave Wentz a bracelet that said, “The Dutch Destroyer,” something Lukas’ family members and friends wore, and continue to wear, to support their son and friend. A special bond was formed between the Kusters and Wentz.
This is why Wentz means so much to NDSU and our state. It’s the same old Carson.
During ESPN’s pregame show leading into Monday Night Football, Wentz was wearing a Bison hat in his interview with Gruden. The person behind the shoulder pads and helmet–and this remarkable act of kindness and warmth to a family he’d never met before–is why North Dakotans take so much pride in Wentz. He’s still the same guy he was at NDSU and at Bismarck Century before that. That kindness, humility and selflessness to think of others and ask “what can I do to help” instead of what’s in it for me is as North Dakotan as a hearty “you betcha,” a church potluck or community benefit for a friend in need.
If you watched Rinaldi’s story, you know what happened next. In the Eagles first game this season, Wentz came out of the tunnel for the game wearing the Dutch Destroyer bracelet that Lukas gave him. He’s also stayed in touch with the Kusters. They were at Lincoln Financial Field for the Eagles win over Washington. During pre-game warmups and following what was, arguably, the best performance in his young career, Wentz not only exchanged hugs and high fives with the Kusters, he visited with them for many minutes, a rarity in a league where too many players are too guarded with their time and protected by handlers. As Wentz said after the game, his relationship with the Kusters and their late son was about something bigger. “It’s always nice to have him on my wrist. It’s a constant reminder that it’s so much bigger than football.” Wentz presented the ball from his touchdown pass to Zach Ertz, and the literal hat from his head, to the family. “They’re just a special family. It’s impacted me in a big way. I was thrilled that they could be here. The youngest one, that was his first Eagles game. So I told him he better keep coming back.”
Here’s what those of us in North Dakota have known for a long time, and what the rest of America and the Philadelphia fan base is quickly finding out. Wentz meant every one of those words. They aren’t some empty promises or platitudes to make himself look good or something you only say when the cameras are rolling. Wentz was as excited to see the Kusters on the field as they were to see him. And there are other acts, big and small, Wentz has done from Fargo to Philadelphia, including through his Audience of One foundation, that resonates far beyond the football field. I said earlier the NFL could use a few more guys like Carson Wentz. It’s bigger than that. The world could use a few more guys like him.
Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!