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  • Many in the North Dakota city became Eagles fans the minute the local hero was drafted. They’ll feel his absence when Philly takes the field for a Super Bowl just 250 miles away
By Jenny Vrentas
February 02, 2018

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FARGO, N.D. — Last summer, Matt Larsen got a firsthand preview of the team that would soon take the NFL by surprise. North Dakota State’s outdoor practice field sits right outside the corner window of the athletic director’s office. In July, the school’s most popular alum brought his teammates here, leading his own offseason throwing session and taking them out for bison burgers afterward, despite the fact that the local joke is, “Don’t eat the mascot.”

They might have planned on this, but little did the rest of us know that, seven months later, Carson Wentz and those Eagles receivers would be back in the upper Midwest for the final game of the 2017 season. Wentz is not leading any throwing sessions this time around; he’s sidelined with a torn ACL he suffered in a road game against the Rams in December. It's a cruel twist that Super Bowl LII, played some 200 miles from where he played college ball, and some 400 miles from where he grew up, will feature the Eagles but not Wentz. This week in Minneapolis, the quarterback acknowledged the “mixed emotions” he’ll feel on Super Bowl Sunday, a very human reaction that is mirrored back in his home state.

“As much as I'll be rooting for the Eagles on Sunday,” Larsen says, “you want Carson to be the quarterback that delivers them their first championship. I think there's a little bit of a consensus around the state that that’s something we were kind of all hoping for him.”

The affinity between Fargo, the small city most often identified according to the dark comedy film and TV series set here, and the young quarterback that helped put it on the map for a different reason, is greater than you might even imagine. He’s the local hero they’ve been waiting for since Roger Maris, the Yankees slugger who broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1961. Before Wentz’s injury, North Dakota state alums flooded Eagles games home and away, wearing their distinctive green and yellow and hanging Bisons banners behind the Eagles bench.

Brent Tehven, owner of the Herd & Horns sports bar across from campus, went to Philadelphia with his dad to watch Wentz play in his rookie season (he’s been back two more times). They stopped a local couple on the street, asking where they could get the best cheesesteaks, and ended up telling the story of Wentz leaving a $500 tip at their bar during a bye week trip to Fargo. The couples kept in touch, and this November, the Philly couple came to Fargo for a NDSU game and stayed at the Tehven family’s wheat and soybean farm. The same weekend they visited, North Dakota State hosted the family of Lukas Kuster, known as the “Dutch Destroyer,” the 10-year-old Eagles fan who befriended Wentz before dying of stomach cancer, as told in a feature by ESPN (Larsen is wearing the same Dutch Destroyer bracelet Wentz wore all year).

During Wentz’s visit this summer, he also delivered a sermon to about 1,000 people at the church he attended in college, First Assembly Fargo; afterward he prayed individually for about an hour with a long line of audience members, some of whom said they were committing themselves to Christianity thanks to his message. The main sporting goods store in Fargo, Scheels, has an 8x10 foot section devoted to Eagles gear, which is almost exclusively Wentz gear, including socks.

“We don't have a ton that motivates us around here, except to stay warm,” Marcus Thornton, VP of marketing at Scheels, a locally grown company that signed Wentz to an endorsement deal before he was drafted, says with a tinge of self-deprecating humor. “So when you get these super awesome stories, they are easy to gravitate toward.”

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Fargo is not a football town, it’s a Bison football town. And a Carson Wentz town. North Dakota is traditionally Vikings territory, but Wentz’s ascent in Philadelphia was enough to convince many locals to change their lifelong allegiance. The afternoon that Wentz got hurt, however, “the bubble kind of burst,” Tehven says. Stephen Glasser, the college pastor at First Assembly who became close with Wentz through his work with the church, stayed home from the 6 p.m. service that evening as he awaited word back from Wentz. Over the next 24 hours, until the official announcement from the team, most of the state of North Dakota was hanging onto the hope that maybe it was a less-serious MCL tear.

Herd & Horns has two different bar areas with different sound systems, so when the Eagles and Vikings played at the same time, they’d have a room earmarked for each team; after Dec. 10, that became less essential. During the Eagles-Vikings NFC championship game, Tehven estimates the bar was 85-90% Vikings purple. Two senior agronomy majors walking through the student union one afternoon this week were talking about Super Bowl LII, but they were discussing how depressed they were the Vikings weren’t in it. Not to mention that, like the rest of Vikings territory, many locals are miffed at how some Eagles fans treated the visitors during the NFC title game, with reports and social media accounts of beer bottles thrown, a banner mocking 99-year-old Vikings fan darling Millie and Case Keenum's family being heckled.

“It’s kind of sad to see my Eagles gear sitting in my closet,” Ty Moser, a sophomore agricultural systems major, says on his way to class. “I never thought I’d leave a team like that, but I just haven’t enjoyed watching the Eagles as much since Carson has been out. It’s totally different. It’s a pride of North Dakota thing.”

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Bisons fans remember Wentz’s senior year, when he missed eight games with a broken wrist, and in the meantime mentored his understudy, Easton Stick. Glasser recalls talking with Wentz at the time about a Bible verse, James 1, which says to find joy when facing trials, because the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Of course, there was one main difference that season: Wentz was able to return for the FCS national championship game, scoring three TDs and securing the team’s fifth straight national title. Wentz’s support of Eagles back-up Nick Foles, in the meeting room and on the sidelines, where he warmly embraced his teammate during the 38-7 NFC championship game win, has come without any expectation of returning to the field during this remarkable run. Fargoans will tell you they often feel like they have to defend their territory, explaining all the things that make this a great city to live in, and the same applies to their homegrown hero.

“We're all pretty protective here,” Thornton says, “and as neat as it is to see Foles have success and to watch Carson work alongside him, we’ll all stand up and tell you that Carson is the reason they went 13-3, because we’re pretty proud of that.”

The Fargodome holds close to 20,000 fans for football, and Larsen says about that same number will travel to Frisco, Texas, a 15-hour drive, when the Bisons are in the national title game, which has happened six times in the last seven years. Imagine the number who would have made the 3.5-hour drive down to Minneapolis if Wentz were playing in Super Bowl LII? And, asked how different the sale of Eagles gear would be at Scheels if Wentz were playing, a room of the store’s marketing reps let their faces do the talking. Instead, the city is showing support in other ways: Scheels sent him a care package after his surgery, with comfy sweats, a blanket and treats for his dogs. Glasser sent a text after the NFC championship game, commending Wentz on being a leader from the sideline and reminding him that he’s still a part of this. He took off Super Bowl Sunday months ago, even before Wentz's injury, and he’ll still be rooting for the Eagles.

But for both Wentz and his home state, it’s going to be a bittersweet day. “People aren’t Eagles fans here,” Tehven says, “they're Carson Wentz fans.”

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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