The most important game of Carson Wentz’s short career will be played only 235 miles southeast of the town where he first drew the NFL’s attention, where a bar near North Dakota State’s campus offered a beer and a cheese steak for $11 (Wentz’s number) to fans who wanted to come watch the Philadelphia Eagles’ games during his rookie season.
For the athlete who grew up in Bismarck, N.D., and former NDSU quarterback, Super Bowl LII was going to be as close as it would get to a homecoming. It would have been a chance for Wentz’s family and friends to revel in the quarterback’s rise, for scores of reporters to make the drive to Fargo and shine a spotlight on the FCS dynasty that helped Wentz become the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft.
The Eagles won the NFC championship, and the coronation played out as scheduled. But the homecoming king is not at the center of it.
Wentz, in the middle of a MVP-caliber season, suffered a torn ACL on Dec. 10 that ended his season and reduced his story to something of a subplot this week in the Twin Cities, as the Eagles prepared for Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium. While scores of reporters camped around Nick Foles’ podium on Monday night at Xcel Energy Center, Wentz watched from the stands, entertaining questions about the bittersweet trip to his first Super Bowl from a few media members who congregated on the steps.
“It’s just tough knowing that it could be you,” Wentz said. “I had my sights set on playing in this thing since I knew we weren’t making the playoffs last year. I had my sights set on playing in Minneapolis — it’s right down the road from home, it’s meant to be. But here we are. It just looks different for me.”
He still finished second in the NFL with 33 touchdown passes, despite missing the Eagles’ final three games, and could harbor a chance of winning league MVP honors on Saturday night if enough voters were willing to look past Wentz’s injury and credit his role in the Eagles’ 11-2 start after a 7-9 season in 2016.
Even that, though, would be a consolation prize a night before a Super Bowl that Wentz will only be able to watch.
“It’s kind of weird for me. Last year, I went to the Super Bowl, and did appearances and everything. I said, ‘I’m not coming back until I’m playing in it.’ ” Wentz said. “Here I am, and I’m actually not playing in it. It’s different emotions tonight, but I’m really excited for these guys to experience this and get a taste of it.”
His excitement seemed to be the strongest for Foles, who returned to Philadelphia last spring to back up Wentz and burned the Vikings for three touchdown passes in the NFC Championship Game to silence some of the questions about the Eagles’ offensive wherewithal that had crept up when Foles first replaced Wentz, posting a passer rating of only 79.5 in his three regular-season games.
“I kind of just felt bad for him, because there was a lot of pressure involved in that,” Wentz said. “How he’s handled it, though, I’m just so proud of him. Him and I are so close off the field. There’s not another guy I’d rather see the success, and me passing it to him. There’s not another guy I would have rather done that [with].”
On Sunday, Wentz will occupy the role that Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich played for most of the Buffalo Bills’ four Super Bowls, offering as much advice as he could from the sideline as Jim Kelly’s backup.
“He’s been a great support for Nick and the team, and celebrating Nick’s success,” Reich said. “But let’s face it: You know it’s eating away at him. He had such a big impact this season. He’s such a big reason why we’re where we’re at today. I don’t think that’s a given [that every player would handle it as well as he has]. I think that’s one of the unique qualities of this team. I think it’s a cumulative effect of all the good character players on our team. How team-oriented we are just pays a lot of dividends and brings out the best in each other in that way.”
Assuming his rehab stays on schedule, Wentz will be the Eagles’ starter again in 2018. There could be more Super Bowl opportunities for him, even if they’re not in Minneapolis.
And if the Eagles make it to next year’s game? There are plenty of flights from Fargo to Minneapolis and on to Atlanta.
“I know there’s a bigger plan,” Wentz said. “If I sit here and question why God’s doing this, it’s a lack of faith. It’s not what I preach. I know it’s tough — there’s that human emotion we talk about. But I know he’s going to use it somehow, some way. He knows what he’s doing.”