McFeely: Carson Wentz knows he walks a fine line when preaching his faith
FARGO — The story has been told before about the deepening of Carson Wentz's faith. He was at a North Dakota State football practice his freshman year when a fellow quarterback, Dante Perez, asked if Wentz had ever read the Bible.
After initially rejecting the question because Wentz didn't think it was the right time or place for such a conversation, he and Perez eventually talked.
The result was Wentz diving head-first into his Christianity. He led the Bison chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and weekly Bible studies. His senior year, Wentz had "AO1" tattooed on the underside of his right wrist. It stands for Audience of One, the tattoo acting as a public display that Wentz lives his life only for Jesus Christ.
Those who knew Wentz best knew of his deeply religious life.
"It was always on display," Bison head coach Chris Klieman said.
But publicly, Wentz only gave snippets. He would mention during interviews that he was "blessed" or occasionally make a reference to Christ when answering a question. He sometimes posted Bible verses on Twitter. Even those mentions seemed to disappear from the public statements Wentz made during the craziness leading up to 2016's NFL Draft, when he was chosen second overall by the Philadelphia Eagles.
That has changed.
Wentz has put his Christianity on full display in a number of ways in the past several months, from leading a group of Eagles who wore AO1 cleats in a game late last season to preaching at churches in Fargo and Bismarck to posting a YouTube video analyzing a sermon he heard in church.
It culminated in Wentz's launching of the AO1 Foundation last week at Oxbow Country Club just south of Fargo, where he stood behind a dais flanked by displays of four Bible verses—one each from Colossians, Romans, Hebrews and 1 Corinthians. In the center of the display was the foundation logo, in which the "O" in AO1 is represented by a crown of thorns with a cross inside.
Wentz has a stage and he's going to use it.
"I'm not trying to hit people over the head with a Bible, but I'm passionate about it," Wentz said. "I want to tell the world about Jesus."
That can come with pitfalls for a professional athlete. High-profile stars like former Eagles defensive lineman Reggie White and quarterback-turned-baseball-player Tim Tebow became controversial figures in part for being outspoken about their Christianity.
Asked if he's purposely being more outward about his faith while with the Eagles than he was at NDSU, Wentz said it's more a matter of the attention being paid to him.
"I kind of always have been (outward), but obviously everything I do now is that much more in the spotlight in North Dakota and in Philadelphia," he said. "I always really have been, but I've been growing a lot. I've been blessed in Philly with some amazing teammates and we've all challenged each other to continue growing our faith. It's not like it's forced, it's just something we're all so passionate about. If we're that passionate about it, it's easy and natural to tell the world about it."
Those teammates include receiver Jordan Matthews and linebackers Marcus Smith and Jordan Hicks. They were among a half-dozen or so Eagles who wore the AO1 cleats last season. The cleats were emblazoned with the AO1 logo, the words "Romans 5:8" and artwork depicting a cross and an open tomb, representing the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
Wentz's openness about his Christianity has not gone unnoticed in Philadelphia, where he is one of the town's most-recognizable celebrities. Whether it makes a difference to anybody in one of the toughest, most critical blue-collar sports cities in America is another matter. Major-market fans and media are quick to question anything that might be viewed as a distraction from winning. And Wentz has the Super Bowl hopes of Eagles fans riding on his shoulders.
"People have noticed that he's wearing the AO1 T-shirt with the crown of thorns. They have said, 'What's that all about?'"said Mike Missanelli, a Philly sports radio talk-show host. "Does it matter? I think right now it makes very few people uncomfortable because he kind of has immunity in this town right now. If he starts to play poorly, then it might become an issue. My feeling is that as long as he can play, Philadelphia doesn't care."
Marcus Hayes, longtime sports columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, isn't even certain poor play would make a difference. Hayes agreed that Wentz is enjoying a honeymoon period, but he also noted Philadelphia has a long list of athletes who were out front with their Christianity and it never became an issue.
"I can't think of one time when religion was viewed as a distraction or a crutch," Hayes said. "It's never been held against them if they struggled."
That's not true for all athletes. White, an ordained minister who was a one-time Eagle who later played for Green Bay, came under fire with the Packers for calling homosexuality "one of the biggest sins" and for making racially tinged remarks based on his interpretation of the Bible. Tebow, a Heisman Trophy winner in college, became a polarizing figure in the NFL because he was so outspoken about his religious beliefs, which included making an anti-abortion TV commercial.
Wentz acknowledged there is danger in being forward with his religious views.
"It's definitely a fine line. You try and walk it," he said. "At the end of the day, you realize you're not going to be perfect. I'm sure there's plenty of things people get tired of hearing from me. At the end of the day, if you're passionate about something, you're not going to hide. That's kind of how I feel and I'm not going to back down about my beliefs."
For Wentz, it's about using a big stage he might only have for a limited amount of time.
"Being in the NFL, obviously it's a big platform," he said. "As a quarterback in Philadelphia, you have a lot of eyes on you. I just want to do the best to redirect all the eyes off me and give them to Jesus."