BISMARCK, N.D. – The varsity basketball team had talent, but it was missing something. It needed some leadership, some physicality, some edge. Darin Mattern, the head coach at Century High here, knew it on the first day of practice. And on the way out of the gym back in 2010 he spotted a quarterback lifting in the weight room nearby. That night, he called Carson Wentz at home.
Wentz was a senior and he hadn't played organized basketball for years. Yet the next day, he showed up at practice, without knowing the plays. A few minutes into a scrimmage, the team's All-State forward drove to the hoop for an easy lay-in. From his blind side, a large hand swooped in and pinned the ball to the backboard. It was Wentz.
Century went on to win the state title for the first time in 27 years.
Nearly five years later, Mattern tells the story in his office, seated in front of a team championship banner. "Without him," he says, pointing at Wentz, "we don't have this."
The entire state of North Dakota is now caught up in a mix of surprise and giddiness over an NFL prospect who had no Power 5 scholarship offers when he graduated high school, yet suddenly is near the top of mock draft boards among quarterbacks heading into this week's NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, where QBs are scheduled to participate in on-field drills on Saturday. North Dakota is a state with hardly any history of elite NFL talent (no offense, Jim Kleinsasser), and so Carson Wentz has become everyone's fantasy football quarterback before he even has a team.
Randy Hedberg, Wentz's position coach at North Dakota State, says he recently went to SportClips and the elderly lady cutting his hair was talking about watching the Senior Bowl. Wentz's high school football coach Ron Wingenbach says the upcoming draft will be "a wild evening here in Bismarck." And Wentz's brother, Zach, says people have told him that after Blair Walsh missed his last-second field goal attempt in the playoffs, local fans decided to bail on the Minnesota Vikings and wait for the draft.
There are local heroes in the NFL every single year, but around here, there hasn't been a local hero quite like this one.
Pam Fosse works at the North Dakota Sports Hall of Fame in Jamestown, which is 102 miles from here or, as she says, "about an hour." She explains that inductees are announced every other year and the following football players (or coaches) have been honored: Dave Osborn, Ron Erhardt, Bob Wiese, Steve Myhra, Phil Hansen, Pete Retzlaff and Kleinsasser. That's it, only seven.
It's curious why North Dakota isn't more of a football factory. Sure, it's a small state by population, ranked 47th nationally with about 750,000 people (which is roughly the size of Charlotte, N.C.). But it has always been a rugged place with a love of the outdoors. Some say that's actually a counterforce, as hunting season overlaps with football season and a lot of kids would rather do that. And the huge oil boom in the western part of the state in the last decade meant some high school graduates could get six-figure jobs right after graduating. Still, that doesn't explain it fully.
"Maybe there's not a lot of descendants of those type of athletes that move here," offers Wingenbach. Part of it might be a lack of a nationally known college football program in the state. North Dakota State has a history of winning, with eight Division II titles from 1965 through 1990, but the Bison's dominance hasn't gotten a ton of attention outside state borders. That changed rapidly in the last decade, though, and Wentz is part of why.
He grew up here, playing sports constantly with his older brother. Zach Wentz was always taller, always better, and he routinely beat Carson in everything until the boy became so frustrated that their parents stepped in. Zach still kept winning anyway. (He still holds the Century passing records, and reminds Carson of this on the regular.) "I probably picked on him too much," Zach says, "because I knew I could beat him and I knew it would rile him up."
All of this made the little brother pretty tough-minded, and the boys became closer and even more resilient after their parents divorced. Zach became a star baseball player and Carson chose football. Carson was a fast-twitch thinker, and he wasn't much for standing in the outfield for 30 minutes waiting for another at-bat.
"He's next play, next play, go, go go," Zach says. "He was a little more impatient than I was."
Carson could handle information quickly, and all of his coaches marveled at this ability even before he grew into his football frame. While his classmates were getting senioritis in 12th grade, Carson was not only trying out for basketball, he was taking calculus even though he didn't need it to graduate. "He challenged himself," says Wingenbach, who taught Wentz in pre-calculus, "and came out of there with an A." Some quarterbacks have the size and skill first, and then develop the intellectual thirst; for Carson, it happened the other way.
This is mostly why Wentz went unnoticed. It's not like Power 5 recruiters are scurrying through North Dakota to begin with, and especially not in search of an average-sized quarterback from a high school without much of a football history. It didn't help when Wentz hurt his throwing hand during his junior year and briefly played receiver with a cast on. Hedberg was at Southern Illinois University during Wentz's high school years, and says he knew about him mostly because he's from Parshall, N.D. Wentz didn't get any offers from major programs – Central Michigan made a late push – and he decided to attend school in-state, in Fargo. By the time Carson got to NDSU, Hedberg noticed two things: he had grown to 6-foot-5 (from 5-8 as a prep freshman), and that intelligence.
"His football IQ is off the charts," Hedberg says, "I told NFL personnel: Sometimes you don't understand it until you're around him."
NDSU already had a promising quarterback when Wentz arrived: Brock Jensen (now in the CFL). A redshirt year and two seasons as a backup helped Wentz get acclimated, and then he stepped in and threw 25 touchdowns against 10 interceptions in 2014. He threw 17 more last season, despite missing time with a broken wrist, and ended up with two FCS national championships as a starter. NDSU, winners of the past five straight FCS championships, became much more visible, and so did its quarterback.
Just as he did on his high school hoops team, though, Wentz brought something beyond his talent. In the 2015 national title game, he was put in a situation that was rather foreign considering how much the Bison had dominated:
"We were in a no-back formation," Hedberg explains. "If he saw pressure with one side, he could slide the protection into that. We never did it [in practice]; we only talked about it. He just did it. It was perfect, but we had never done it before. He was able to take that and do it rather easily and smoothly. He's that type of kid."
Back at Century, Wingenbach started to get calls and letters: the Saints, the Bears, the Chargers, the Packers, the Chiefs, the Raiders. Wentz was getting as much or more interest as a potential pro than he did as a prep. And across the state, people in coffee shops and truck stops started buzzing about the homemade draft hopeful.
Can he live up to the hype? That's unclear, as winning an FCS title is hardly tantamount to breaking down NFL defenses. But at least for the next several weeks, the hype is worth celebrating. North Dakota is a state of cities spread far apart, and distinguished even further by landscape and resources. The oil boom of the last decade has dramatically altered towns like Dickinson and Williston, and the effects have rippled east toward Bismarck and beyond. "For good and for bad," Wingenbach says, "I'll be honest with you."
Even though hours are needed to drive from one rival school to another – Century travels every varsity team four hours to Williston every season – a local-boy-made-good makes the state feel like one mammoth community.
"There's probably not many places I go where they don't ask about him," Zach says. "And I joke, ‘I'm doing pretty well too!'"
Since the days of the fur trade there has been a coming together of different groups in North Dakota that hasn't always been easy or peaceful. That's reflected in the name of its capital. "Dakota" is a Sioux Indian word, but "Bismarck" was changed from "Edwinton" in the 1870s as a tribute to German chancellor Otto Von Bismarck and a way to entice immigrants. Wentz's descendants were Germans who migrated from what is now Ukraine (Odessa, to be exact) a generation later, according to Zach. They have been here ever since. That is one of the points of pride about the Carson Wentz story; he was educated here, he found his stardom here, and he thrived here. He is a tie that can bind.
"I can say this with a great deal of confidence," Mattern says. "There's not one person in the state of North Dakota, wherever they're from, if they competed with him, if they disliked him because of a rivalry, that is not on board with Carson, to see him have success. Not only with this upcoming draft but whatever his future holds."
He is from here, but he is also of here. Nobody is taking credit for Carson Wentz, not even Carson himself, but the months ahead will be a shared celebration. His new team might just be North Dakota's new team.