From ND to the pros, Carson Wentz wins over fans
ST. PAUL -- Doug Burgum was too busy campaigning for governor earlier this month to bow hunt with North Dakota's most popular sportsman, Philadelphia Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. So the Republican front-runner and former Microsoft exec...
ST. PAUL - Doug Burgum was too busy campaigning for governor earlier this month to bow hunt with North Dakota's most popular sportsman, Philadelphia Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz.
So the Republican front-runner and former Microsoft executive invited Wentz and his posse to stalk deer on his land along the Red River south of Fargo during the Eagles' Oct. 4-9 bye week. Burgum figured the excursion would last a couple days and he could catch up before the trail turned cold.
Wentz is a rifleman but had never hunted with a bow and arrow. On the first day in Burgum's woods, the former North Dakota State star bagged a 4x4 buck with his first shot.
"Sometimes it takes years to have the nerve, the calm and the poise to be a successful bow hunter," said Burgum, who might be the second-most recognizable North Dakota State alumnus at the moment.
"I shouldn't be surprised Carson excelled right off the bat: one-for-one - a 100-percent completion ratio."
Wentz is not perfect on the football field. He never was, even during an impressive debut in which the NFL's September Rookie of the Month won his first three starts throwing for 769 yards, five touchdowns, zero interceptions and a passer rating of 103.8.
Since the bye, the Eagles have lost two straight road games, to Detroit and Washington, as they prepare to host the Vikings on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
In the 24-23 loss to the Lions, Wentz completed 75 percent of his passes and emerged with a rating of 102.8. The Redskins, meantime, sacked Wentz five times last week in a 27-20 victory.
The defeats have been humbling for Wentz but not soul-crushing.
"We're not freaking out around here," he said. "We're not stressed about it. We're excited for the next challenge. Obviously, the Vikings pose a great challenge. We're excited that they're coming into our place, so we'll be ready for it."
Preparation has served Wentz well since Sept. 3, when he learned Sam Bradford had been traded to Minnesota and new Eagles coach Doug Pederson tapped him to be Philadelphia's franchise quarterback.
Wentz was hunting when Pederson called with the news.
"I was pretty surprised but also super excited," he said. "Just diving into everything, I knew my time would come. Obviously it came a little quicker than people expected, but I was ready for it and excited for it. It was time to roll. I just took it in stride."
Philly fans might just be starting to worship Wentz, but he already is a living monument in North Dakota.
Born in the capital of Bismarck, raised on pioneer values of hard labor and self-sufficiency, and schooled at the FCS proving grounds of North Dakota State University, Wentz became a folk hero as the quarterback who led the Bison to national championships in 2014 and 2015-the back end of five straight titles.
He gained more national traction in April when the Eagles drafted him No. 2 overall, Philadelphia's highest pick since Donovan McNabb went second overall in 1999.
When Wentz inherited the starting job from Bradford, his profile shot through the stratosphere in his native land.
For the most part, the eastern half of North Dakota is Vikings territory. Wentz grew up rooting for Minnesota and was tickled when Brett Favre the mercenary joined the Vikings in 2009 for that Greek tragedy season.
He relishes the task of trying to halt a losing streak against his undefeated childhood team.
"It'll be fun. It'll be a special one," Wentz said. "But they present a great challenge. That's the most exciting part about it. They're coming into our place. Obviously they're 5-0, and we're looking to change that."
North Dakota-Fargo in particular-will be a house divided Sunday.
The Knickerbocker Liquor Locker in Hickson, about 10 miles south of Fargo off Interstate 29, is a pilgrimage for any Bison buff.
Party buses shuttle fans to and from Saturday home games at the Fargodome. Helmets, banners and jerseys hang from the walls, which are plastered with green-and-yellow memorabilia. An autographed Wentz helmet sits in a trophy case.
The night Wentz was drafted, there were more people celebrating at the bar than during a typical North Dakota hockey game, according to owner Mike Bice.
"People message me on Facebook or call the bar every weekend wanting to know if we'll have the Eagles game on (television)," Bice said. "There are more Carson Wentz Eagles jerseys in here than there are Vikings jerseys on game days."
No wonder. After Wentz and the Eagles defeated Cleveland in the season opener, his No. 11 jersey became the top seller in the NFL.
How will the conflict of interest shake out Sunday?
"I'm guessing everyone hopes Carson does well but the Vikings win," he said.
Bice is a Vikings season-ticket holder who has taken to wearing his Wentz jersey to U.S. Bank Stadium. He also is an avid Dallas Cowboys fan.
"To wear an Eagles logo really hurts," Bice acknowledges.
To help ease the pain, the Knickerbocker Liquor Locker fashioned a new shot in honor of its relocated native son.
The "Wentzylvania" concoction has Bison green Melon liqueur, Blue Curacao Liqueur (which changes color to Eagles green), Crème de cacao and half-and-half.
"It tastes like a Peppermint Pattie, which originated in York, Pa., and is made by Hershey's," Bice explained.
Closer to the NDSU campus is the Herd and Horns sports bar, a regular hangout for Bison fans, students and athletes.
When Wentz returned to Fargo during Philadelphia bye week, co-owner Brent Tehven shut it down one night so Wentz could have a private party with about 30 friends and family.
They played darts and shuffleboard, shot pool and ran up a $1,500 bar tab that Wentz picked up. A Philadelphia television station called Herd and Horns and learned the Eagles quarterback left a generous $500 tip.
The leak irked Tehven, but Wentz's ascension is making it harder for him to maintain a low profile, especially in his home state.
"He's such a good Midwest kid," said Tehven, a former NDSU football player. "A lot of people can relate to him because he loves to come home and hunt, he loves to fish. They've gotten to know the quality of person he is. Look at his jersey sales.
"People who are spending $150 on a jersey want it to represent someone of quality. People are looking for a hero. They're sick of Johnny Manziel and Odell Beckham Jr.'s temper tantrums. Here they want somebody they can relate to and look up to."
No specialty shots at Herd and Horns, but there is a Philly cheese steak itemized as No. 11 on the menu. When the Eagles play, you can get the sandwich and a pint of domestic beer for $11.
Only Alaska and Vermont among the 50 states have fewer people than North Dakota, with its 756,927 residents, according to the most recent estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Harsh winters and North Dakotans' hardscrabble lifestyles demand humility and appreciation from their sports icons.
Wentz is their guy. This is his time.
That is why he means so much to them.
"North Dakotans think of themselves as humble, hardworking people who have overcome long odds," said Burgum, a former NDSU cheerleader and self-made billionaire who literally bet the family farm to start his own software company in the early 1980s.
"It's been 127 years since we achieved statehood and people are still in touch with their immigrant grandparents and pioneering on the prairie. When Carson Wentz, who was a skinny freshman like all of us were, goes from the Bison to the pros, and then becomes a starting quarterback with immediate success, it's a dream come true.
"And to do it the way he has, with so much class and presence and ability," Burgum continued, "he's an inspiration to see what North Dakotans can do."