It’s Monday, I’m 5 miles outside Fargo, more than three hours into a drive, trying to make it to a funeral on time, when suddenly it’s there: the wind.
It had been calm or at least seemed calm all the way from Minneapolis until this point, but now it’s howling. There’s not much to knock it down. It never goes away.
This is the wind of my youth. Grand Forks is my hometown, about an hour north of here, but it’s all the same. I’m here at this point in far western Minnesota to say goodbye to my 90-year-old great aunt who has passed away after years of suffering with Alzheimer’s.
But suddenly, in this moment, my thoughts turn to the strangest place: Carson Wentz. I’d never given much thought to the ascent of Wentz — who grew up in Bismarck, who starred at North Dakota State, who was made the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft, who one day earlier had made a sterling debut in a victory for the Eagles — yet here I was strangely consumed by his story and North Dakota’s love affair with him. I drive on, not yet realizing this will become a theme during a very long day.
I step out of the car with minutes to spare and the wind nearly knocks me over. I’m here for a funeral but maybe I’m really here to be reminded of the place from which I came.
It’s a Catholic service, and the Father says some very kind words about my great aunt. Details of some unpleasant parts of her early life are glossed over or not mentioned. We skip ahead to her mid-50s, when she met my great-uncle, a farmer, and married him. She grew up on a farm and suddenly she was a farmer again — and this is basically the only version of her I have ever known. Their land was a destination for family reunions and less formal gatherings — wide open spaces, with plenty of barn cats to discover.
The Father had spoken that morning with my great-uncle, now 92, and asked him about her. “She was always very patient with me,” was what my great-uncle told him. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
We head to the burial service, in a place you’d be hard-pressed to find on a map. A farm field tells you where the cemetery ends. I’m not looking for anyone crying, but I see nobody crying. There’s a stoic sadness in the air, everyone making sure everyone else knows things will be fine.
This is where I’m from, and this is how I still am: you put your head down and work. Slow and steady is the way to win the race, which is to say it’s the way to keep things moving.
I find a group of cousins my age and join in some small talk. As I enter the circle, my cousin says: “We were just talking about Carson Wentz.” Nobody can believe the chain of events linking the region’s favorite NFL team to their favorite player: Teddy Bridgewater is injured, Sam Bradford is traded to the Vikings, and suddenly Wentz is a starter.
But none of them doubt Wentz. They’ve seen it already during national championships in Fargo. And there is an unspoken pride on display.
If you think Minnesota is provincial about its sports celebrities, slip across the Red River sometime. We will happily sing the virtues of Darin Erstad (the Jamestown native who later starred in MLB) or Jim Kleinsasser (the Carrington native who played at UND and then for the Vikings). I can find you plenty of people on short notice who are still upset about the steroid era of baseball because of what it meant to the home run record of Roger Maris (who graduated from high school in Fargo).
But Wentz is on another level, it seems. He plays the most glamorous position in team sports. He has had an unbelievable run of success. Yet he also comes off as incredibly humble, workmanlike — a model North Dakotan.
He’s not just from North Dakota. He’s of North Dakota. He has lived his life here and knows the things that we know. He is one of us.
It’s late afternoon, and it’s time to head home. Driving to Fargo in the early morning, going to a funeral and associated family time, then driving back in the afternoon … that will leave me drained, as it turns out, for a couple of days. I probably knew it would beforehand, but I’m stubborn. I put my head down and keep moving.
I find a place to eat, but when I’m blocks away a train — it looks to be carrying oil west to east, the same direction Wentz traveled — stops at the intersection and doesn’t move for minutes. I keep moving and find a different place instead.
Maybe it was meant to be? Inside, there is a copy of Monday’s Fargo Forum, which I had not yet seen. The front page of the main section is dominated by coverage of Wentz’s debut. So is the cover of the sports section. Mike McFeely has written columns for both covers, and in one spot Wentz is quoted about his debut thusly:
“I wasn’t really nervous. I really don’t get nervous. I listen to worship music before the game to calm my nerves and just go out and have fun. It’s a game and I try to enjoy it. I had a lot of fun today.”
Prodded for more, Wentz offers this:
“At the end of the day today, we won. You dream and you want to win. That was the goal today and we had a great team win. I think it will hit me now after the game. I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a kid. It’s just the first of many and now it’s on to next week.”
Head down. Keep moving.
The drive continues. I call my dad, and in the midst of the small talk he mentions the obvious: “How about Carson Wentz?”
A gray day turns to night, until finally the lights of the Twin Cities beckon. I don’t know how many times I’ve made this drive. I’m too tired to count.
I later realize that I listened to two CDs in full on the trip: Nirvana’s In Utero (on the way up) and Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy (on the way back). Hey, subconscious: In Utero came out in September of 1993, just as I was starting my senior year of high school in Grand Forks. Vitalogy came out in November of 1994, two months into my freshman year at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
These are the two places I’ve split virtually my entire life, almost evenly at this point.
But there’s no doubt where I’m from. When that wind hits, I know I’m there.
I bet Carson Wentz knows it, too.