Photos by Hillary Ehlen and special to Bison Illustrated
Bison baseball alum Zach Wentz had his date with the professional ranks. After setting the game aside, he has begun a life of service, for both his family and his brother’s AO1 Foundation.
Before there was an NFL star named Carson Wentz, there was another. Wentz’s brother, Zach, was poised to become one of the greatest athletes to come out of the city of Bismarck. A three-time All-State performer for Bismarck Century High School, Wentz was dominant on the diamond. His senior season saw him hit .533 from the plate with three home runs and a .783 slugging percentage. He was even more impressive on the mound, striking out 64 batters and having a stingy 1.54 ERA. Those numbers garnered him Class A Pitcher of the Year in 2008. Wentz’s American Legion numbers were of near-mythic proportions too. Therefore, Zach Wentz was the talk of the town in not only Bismarck but Fargo as well, having committed to play baseball for the Bison.
Coming to Fargo in 2009, Wentz was joining an NDSU baseball program that had gone 15-30 the year before. After his freshman year with the Bison, Wentz was voted a team captain. This is a title he would hold the rest of his NDSU career. However, the Bison struggled on the diamond, going a combined 60-90 in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
For Wentz, he learned more about leadership in times of struggle with the Bison. “You learn the ability to communicate with different people, handle adversity, communicate during a crisis,” he said. “My first three years there, we weren’t very good. Being able to cope with that, but we also kept the core guys in positive spirits. So many things in leadership are learned from when things don’t go well. That was the case my first few years at NDSU. You learn to lead people.”
Finally, in his senior season, Wentz and the Bison broke out of their slump. They went on to record a 40-20 season in 2012. This included an impressive 21 wins away from Newman Outdoor Field. In 227 at-bats, Wentz hit a .317 average with five home runs and 41 RBIs. Although the Bison lost to Oral Roberts in the Summit League Tournament, it was NDSU’s highest win total in program history. To date, it is still the highest mark is the school’s history.
After graduation, Wentz tried his hand at professional baseball. While this was an expected move by those who watched Wentz play, many assumed he would have a lengthy pro career. However, Wentz had a different vision for his life. After playing only one season with the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, Wentz stepped away from the game. While it was a tough decision, it seemed right to the elder Wentz brother. “It was especially hard in baseball because there are so many independent teams out there. At some point, you have to look in the mirror and say it’s time to start a new chapter in your life,” he said. “When I was released by the RedHawks, I could have continued to try and run this gamut a little bit longer. I decided that the next chapter of my life involved a family and here I am today. So I think I made the right decision.”
What ensued was something that no one could have seen coming. Wentz began a teaching career for three years. In that span, Fargo and the football world witnessed the meteoric rise of Zach’s brother, Carson. Many know that Carson was also a successful athlete for Bismarck Century and went on to play quarterback for North Dakota State. Wentz was then drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles with the number two overall pick in 2016.
Carson always had the vision to start his own foundation. Thanks to the close relationship between him and Zach, the older Wentz brother was on the ground floor as the AO1 Foundation was taking shape. It has now become one of the fastest growing non-profits in the United States with a massive capital campaign in the works.
“I was a teacher for three years so I keep joking that I need to go get a business degree or something, it probably would have been more appropriate,” he said. “It’s something that is pretty special to the both of us. Carson really sets the vision and sets a very high standard for how we run the non-profit. There are a lot of big decisions and they always go through him first. He just has a very high standard, if we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it well. So it’s cool to share in those victories and those special moments because part of how Carson got to where he is, is that work ethic and that high standard he set. We’re just trying to steward everything the best way we can.”
In the non-profit sphere, there are several differences compared to a day-to-day business. There are different rules, regulations and best practices. Wentz, who has no prior business experience, took the battle head-on. “It’s definitely different, but it’s rewarding, that’s the thing. It’s something where we are constantly evolving and constantly learning something new every day about the non-profit world,” he said. “Whether that be rules or regulations or best practices, we are constantly evolving. It’s just been a blessing to be able to see people tell their stories.”
With the non-profit growing and Carson’s fame widening, the Wentz brothers brought in another familiar face. They called upon former Bison quarterback Cole Davis to help in running the day-to-day operations of the foundation. Zach has described the move as a “home run” for both the brothers and the foundation. All three find a commonality in their Bison work ethic. “My wife gets mad at me, but we never take the time to rest. You don’t get used to sitting around too often. You’re always on the go, so you’re forced to work hard,” he said. “The more work you put in, the better things will be. It’s just a mentality that you are going to outwork people and I think that’s carried over to today. I probably need to put the computer down at night and spend time with my family, but I’m just so wired to keep working.”
That has not stopped AO1 Foundation from setting their goals high. They recently announced a campaign to build an athletic complex in Haiti where Carson has done mission work. In May alone, the foundation brought in $520,000 towards the Haiti project. At the foundation’s first annual softball game, Wentz and company brought in $850,000 in donations. The vision, which was formulated by Carson, has been adopted by the elder Wentz too.
“It all started with Carson’s original missions trip down there, the one where he actually met his wife. It’s always difficult because we have so much here and you don’t quite realize the impact you make when you’re down there,” he said. “Not only in the individuals there, but also the individuals who are leaving this country to go to one with very few resources. That makes us want to make a difference down there. It’s a high-need area, it’s extremely convenient to get in and out of from the United States. He just fell in love with the people, fell in love with the optimism, the hope, the smiles that these people have. He got to where he is today and I got to where I am today through sports. There are so many kids down there that can use sports as a gateway to not only professional sports but mentorship and a gateway to hearing the Gospel from older, reputable adults. There are so many good things that come through sports and these kids may not have had the chance to participate in them. Through sports, we can teach these people basic life skills that we take for granted. They can learn to be responsible adults.”
On a smaller scale, AO1 Foundation has created camps and retreats with the first one being held this summer. It is only the beginning for the foundation in that capacity. “We’ve just scratched the surface as to what out outdoor program will look like,” he said. “We’re planning things for the fall and for the spring and summer we’ll have more camps and retreats that we had this summer.”
However, while AO1 Foundation has gone global, they always keep their local ties. Carson and Zach hold one or two fundraising events in Fargo and North Dakota each year. For Wentz, it is a chance to update the area and tell of the great things happening at AO1. “Anytime we can give back in the area we came from is huge. We’re continually evolving in that respect,” he said. “Every year we come back and share updates with people in that area and we’re excited about the next year. We come back each year and say the next year will be better than the one before. We’re going to have a lot more stories and programs and things going on. We’re passionate about it and we’re excited about growing this thing and I think people in the area see that and respect it.”
While Zach Wentz took a rather unconventional route to the non-profit sphere, it is one that he finds welcoming. Not only is he able to share in his experiences and victories with his family, but his friends as well. As Wentz references, when you are handling donor money, you need to keep the circle of friends tight. Luckily, the Wentz circle is one filled with generosity, grace and altruism. Because of those qualities, Zach and Carson Wentz have built a foundation that will be around long after Carson plays his final down in the NFL.