After kicking down doors, Eagles QB Carson Wentz has found his voice

PHILADELPHIA — How in the world did Carson Wentz, the newly anointed franchise quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016, wind up trapped inside a gas station bathroom, anyway?

Wentz began cracking up when that memory was raised before practice last week — far enough back in time now that it’s just a quaint story about a young man from North Dakota finding his way in a strange, foreign land … of New Jersey.

Four years ago in June, a little more than a month after the Eagles drafted Wentz No. 2 overall, he was driving from who knows where back to his new home just over the bridge from Philadelphia when nature called. Wentz chose the wrong place to answer, as the uninitiated do.

“Not to hate on any New Jersey gas stations, but the bathrooms aren’t the cleanest places and it was one of those outdoor ones where you get the key and all that fun stuff,” Wentz told ESPN. “So I pee, I do everything, and the lock is like stuck. I literally can’t get out of this bathroom. And I don’t have my phone; I left it in my truck. So there I am looking around, like, What can I grab? The toilet paper holder? Can I try and jimmy something open? Nothing works. So the next thing you know, I’m just pounding on the door, screaming, yelling for someone to come help me.

“I don’t remember the specifics of how they got it open, but there was a pair of garden shears [involved], and one of the other guys kicked the thing in,” Wentz added. “A good ‘welcome to New Jersey’ moment, I guess.”

Little did he know about the “welcome to the NFL” moments that would follow.

Those include:

  • From being abruptly named the starter eight days before the Eagles’ opener his rookie season while he was lying in a cornfield hunting geese …

  • To the high of the near-MVP and Super Bowl campaign the following season in 2017 …

  • To the lows of the back-to-back season-ending injuries …

  • To the impossible dynamics created when his backup, Nick Foles, delivered the city its first Lombardi trophy …

  • To being knocked out of his first playoff game with a concussion last January …

  • To the drafting of quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second round in April.

There has been a lot of drama packed into Wentz’s first four years as a pro, all unfolding in one of the country’s most intense media markets.

Off the field has been equally dizzying for Wentz. He and his wife, Maddie, welcomed their first child, a baby girl, in late April. And he has been busy expanding his AO1 Foundation along with his brother, Zach, with the operation extending from the Philadelphia area to North Dakota to Haiti, where through the foundation they have built a sports complex.

After galvanizing a group of young, unheralded skill-position players for a late-season playoff push in 2019, and following the departure of safety Malcolm Jenkins (who is now with the New Orleans Saints) this offseason, Wentz has grown into the team’s primary leader, finally armed with enough experience and clout to stand in the middle of the circle and guide the squad with authority. He does so with broadened shoulders after adding 13 pounds of muscle to his frame this offseason, the benefits of being injury-free and able to hit the weights hard. Not to mention he’s in Year 2 of a four-year contract extension that included $109.9 million guaranteed.

Asked if he feels like he has aged 50 years over his four seasons in Philadelphia given all that has been packed in, Wentz, 27, said, “I’m not sure how to answer that, but yes. No doubt.”

Any naiveté he carried with him from North Dakota to New Jersey has been blasted out of him like a foot through a gas station door. The diversity of the city he has immersed himself in, and the testimonies of so many of his teammates who are hurting, has awakened him to the pain being felt in the Black community, compelling him to use his voice to raise awareness and champion change — actions that have resonated strongly in the Eagles’ locker room.

“He’s embraced it, for sure, because you can definitely see that he’s speaking up a lot more,” Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said. “You can tell that he’s more confident. … You know who’s the head of the team.”

His ascendance comes just in time for what could be the most challenging season in league history, played during the coronavirus pandemic and amid social unrest. All that past adversity might come in handy for Wentz in Year 5.

Pushing past Foles

Quarterback Josh McCown was in the Eagles’ locker room last season and saw how tricky the waters were that Wentz had to navigate.

There were strong, established leaders all around him, including center Jason Kelce, tackle Jason Peters, Graham and, above all, Jenkins, who served as the team’s voice and compass. Wentz, 26 years old at the time, had to figure out how and when to assert himself in a group with so many accomplished powers. That was true when it came to his wide receivers as well, with Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson having 20 years of NFL experience and four Pro Bowls between them.

“Sometimes when you’re dealing with veterans, as a young player it’s just, you know, ‘Do they want me to say something to them? Or would they feel insulted? Sometimes you’re sorting through those things,” McCown said.

Adding to the complexity of Wentz’s rise was Foles’ success in his stead, both in 2017 when he finished the Super Bowl run and the following season, when he helped the Eagles into the divisional round of the playoffs. That team achievement emboldened some individuals to speak out in less rosy times, anonymously pointing fingers, including at Wentz.

“It’s just been an interesting start to hopefully a really cool career, where there’s been a lot of really cool moments, but for lack of a better term, just awkward. I mean, it just is,” McCown said of Wentz’s situation. “To take your team to the playoffs and have somebody else win the Super Bowl, it ain’t that he’s not happy, but it’s just an awkward moment where you’re like, I wish that could have been me, but it wasn’t me, but I’m still happy for my team. … [My advice] was always just be yourself and be truthful. It’s OK to acknowledge that it felt weird. I don’t know that I would want him to be my quarterback if he didn’t feel weird.”

All of that factored into the “dynamics at work,” McCown said, “where you’re just going, ‘OK, what’s my voice as a leader for this team?'”

Wentz found that voice over the last four games of the 2019 regular season. The skill positions decimated by injuries, Wentz led the Eagles to four consecutive wins and a playoff berth while surrounded by five players who were called up from the practice squad, including running back Boston Scott, receivers Greg Ward, Deontay Burnett and Rob Davis, and tight end Josh Perkins. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, 48% of the Eagles’ receptions during that four-game win streak came from players who were not on the active roster at the start of the 2019 season.

Toward the beginning of that win streak, Wentz took the young players out to dinner to forge a bond and spent one-on-one time with each of them, pumping in confidence while figuring out how to best connect on an individual level. The circumstances allowed Wentz the freedom to be the leader he wanted to be on his own terms.

“As a franchise quarterback, you have the ability to activate others by your words and by your belief in them. And I think he managed that tool very well down the stretch,” McCown said. “There were a lot of those little moments, and those were the ones that made me smile, whether it was in practice or whether it was in a film session of, ‘Hey man, I trust in you to win.’ When a guy hears that, it just does something to that guy’s confidence.”

Wentz called that stretch probably the most memorable of his career to date, and has said he learned more about himself as a leader in those four games than at any point over the prior three-plus seasons.

“Looking back in my career, I think it’ll be a big moment that really, hopefully, set me up for a long time and shaped the future,” Wentz said.

Stepping out of his comfort zone

Wentz “definitely” felt like he was out on a ledge when he hit “send” on his social media post in late May. Three days after the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis Police custody, he called out “institutional racism” in the country, saying it “breaks my heart and needs to stop.” He was one of the first prominent white athletes to speak out and it stunned some people in the building given his publicly neutral stance on other polarizing topics in the past.

But conversations during a candid Eagles team meeting after Floyd’s death opened Wentz’s eyes to issues he had previously not seen clearly, and he realized the mistreatment going on ran directly counter to his Christian beliefs.

“It’s been a lot of learning and a lot of conviction on the heart, honestly. Growing up in North Dakota … it’s something that’s kind of new and something that I’ve chosen to kind of just overlook, because when I went to high school, I think I had just a couple Black classmates and it’s something that was so foreign to me. And so this offseason, I took a real look into showing empathy and understanding what has it been like to be a Black man in this world, in this country, not just in today’s world but going back 400 years to now and how we got to this point,” Wentz said.

Wentz joined the team’s social justice committee, put his signature on the letter to Congress supporting a bill to end qualified immunity for police officers and has made assurances he is committed to the cause for the long haul.

“He’s really come in and really embraced this football team, and really even embraced this opportunity with the social injustice, with bridging the gap between himself and his Black teammates,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said.

“It shows you that we have a true leader back there with [No.] 11,” Eagles safety Will Parks added. “It’s not too many times when you have a quarterback, a guy still young in the league like myself, to express his feelings and want to help. That’s awesome.”

‘I don’t know that’s really a second thought’

“Thy Kingdom Crumb” is one arm of Wentz’s AO1 Foundation designed to uplift communities through serving food. In non-pandemic times, that was by way of a food truck, which would go out to different neighborhoods in the greater Philadelphia area and distribute free meals.

The model has transitioned to handing out grocery boxes with basic necessities during the early phase of the pandemic when things as commonplace as toilet paper were difficult to come by. The foundation has since moved to giving out 150 to 200 family-size box meals a week, using a church lot for safe curbside pickup.

Zach Wentz, Carson’s older brother and a near spitting image, jokes that patrons have accused him of lying when he insists through his mask that he’s not Carson, an especially hard sell since Carson is spotted handing out food from time to time when his schedule allows.

“It shows a lot about his character,” Zach said, “and just being able to step out of his comfort zone a little bit and then really serve the people in the community tangibly and really get his hands dirty and get in there and work.”

Zach acknowledged it was a bit daunting when he gave up his job as a baseball coach in North Dakota and moved with his wife to Philadelphia to work with and be a support system for Carson. But it has opened the whole family to a bigger world, and Zach has helped grow the foundation, which powered the opening of a sports facility in Haiti in 2019 that serves 15,000 children per year and created outdoor programs for children with physical challenges and life-threatening illnesses.

He is naturally overprotective when he sees his little brother endure criticism or face challenges that come with being a franchise quarterback in a big city, but Zach has learned to relinquish some of that control. And he has seen growth from Carson, too.

“He’s, always to me, been the younger brother, the little brother, but I think he’s just growing into who he is as a man, as a father and as a leader, willing to have challenging conversations with with people, willing to lead by example and obviously verbally as well,” Zach said. “And just really growing into what an NFL quarterback is. … Just kind of seeing him grow into that and be comfortable in his skin and who he is has been really, really fun to watch.”

If there was an issue early on between Wentz and some of his teammates, it was that they had trouble connecting, both because of their different backgrounds and because Wentz was hesitant at times to open up and be vulnerable. That has eased over time.

So, too, has any insecurity about his place in the organization. Wentz said he “probably” would have reacted differently to the selection of Hurts in the second round if it had happened earlier in his career, but that his broader viewpoint earned over time has allowed him to think more about how he can help Hurts and the team and “see it through a different lens.”

“I don’t think anybody at any position when they pick a second-rounder is immune to going, ‘That’s interesting,’ or whatever,” said McCown, who is expected to be signed to the Eagles’ practice squad. “But at the same time, I think [Wentz] understands the plane that he’s on and where he’s heading. So I don’t know that’s really a second thought. He’s got [young players] he needs to help to get ready, and I think that’s where his focus is.”

A concussion suffered as a result of a questionable hit from Jadeveon Clowney in a wild-card loss to the Seattle Seahawks in January prevented Wentz from finishing his first career playoff game, his season ended by injury for a third consecutive year. The demand for postseason success will only grow — the ticking of the clock amplified by the presence of Hurts.

Wentz sets off on another climb Sunday at Washington (1 p.m. ET, Fox), starting from the same base but with a little different perspective.

“A lot of people, this game can kind of change them and money or fame or whatever. But my values, my ideals, my faith has always been at the forefront and that hasn’t changed them,” he said. “By no means am I a perfect human being — that’s not what I’m saying. But just my authenticity of who I am — the kid from North Dakota with the same faith and values — hasn’t changed, just the circumstances look different. And I think I’ve just matured a lot and grown a lot.

“By no means have I arrived on any level with that, but it’s something that I continue to look forward to growing and becoming a better husband, a better father, a better teammate and a better leader every single day.”

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