This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 25 NFL Draft Issue. Subscribe today!
IT'S ALMOST 11 P.M., and he's just housed a 14-ounce rib-eye, some waffle-fry nachos and two pretzel bread rolls with cheese sauce. But Carson Wentz is not satisfied. His pro day, an event that feels both overwrought and like the biggest test of his life, is just two days away.
The 23-year-old quarterback is sitting in a corner booth in the back of the Granite City Food and Brewery in Fargo, North Dakota, fiddling with his wispy copper beard. It's both a tic and an obvious tell, a good indicator he's grown tired of sitting still. He's thinking about the future, and the uncertainty is maddening. He's a planner, an obsessive scheduler, and each hour he's awake, he is restless, as if his body and brain are idling in neutral.
"I want to head back to the dome," he tells Ryan Lindley, his friend and quarterbacking mentor, as the check arrives. "Just for like an hour. We can do a longer session in the morning, but I feel like I want to get more time in before I go to bed."
As they prepare to leave, an older couple stop at the table and gush about what a pleasure it was to watch Wentz play at North Dakota State. This happens often in Fargo, proud and provincial gushing. In the rest of the country, Wentz can go unrecognized, just another tall white guy in a Patagonia pullover. But here in North Dakota, he might as well be royalty. "It's hard to be a normal person," Wentz says. "I just keep telling myself, don't make it bigger than it is. I wear hats so at least I can try to blend in."
The encounter, like almost all of them, ends on the same awkward note: Carson, we sure hope you don't end up in Cleveland! Anywhere but Cleveland! He smiles and offers a polite but forced chuckle. "It's out of my control," he says, shrugging. He's become an expert in the art of noncommittal, inoffensive shrugs. He shakes a few more hands, gets up and walks to the parking lot.
In his truck, Wentz has a thin binder full of plays from -- who else? -- the Browns. Cleveland has both the second pick in the 2016 draft and arguably the most miserable quarterback succession in the NFL over the past decade. And despite picking up Robert Griffin III in March, all signs show that the Browns are still on the hunt for another one.
Wentz knows the team is testing him, trying to both rattle and educate. The Browns can't afford another failure. He has memorized every formation, but he's still headed to the Fargodome hungry to diagram plays. (Wentz long ago acquired a key to the stadium to ensure late-night access.) Lindley, a journeyman since being drafted in 2012, will quiz Wentz on the Browns' verbiage, demanding to know where each read should be against different defenses. They'll even do a mock news conference. Some coaches, he warns, like to soak footballs with water and ask you to throw them after your workout, just to see how flustered you'll get. The session won't end until well after midnight.
But first, as they climb into the truck, Lindley can't resist revisiting the Cleveland conversation. They've witnessed some version of it two dozen times by now, and it's always hard to know what to say. The Browns have shown more interest than any other team, and they're planning to send coaches, not just scouts, to watch Wentz's pro day. "I'm starting to feel like: Screw it, I hope you do go to Cleveland," Lindley says. "You kick ass there, they'll put you on their version of Mount Rushmore."
Wentz grins but doesn't speak. He doesn't need to. The look on his face is another tell.
Hell yeah, it says. Bring it on.
IT'S 36 HOURS from Wentz's pro day, and the compliments are snowballing. Jon Gruden says Wentz is the most NFL-ready quarterback he's seen in years. Mike Mayock thinks he's comparable to Andrew Luck. Gil Brandt says his arm reminds him of Joe Flacco's.
Still, are you skeptical? Does the hype feel just a tad overcooked? Don't apologize. If Wentz ends up being one of the top picks -- the Browns have privately told people they're leaning toward grabbing him -- it will represent one of the biggest gambles in the modern era of the draft.
For starters, Wentz's upbringing checks none of the boxes we've grown accustomed to seeing in a quarterback. He grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota, and was 5-foot-8 and 120 pounds as a high school freshman. His older brother, Zach, was a stud baseball player and 6-2 by eighth grade. People cracked jokes that it was a shame Carson wasn't blessed with the same athletic genes. "I remember just praying, 'Dear Lord, please let me grow to be at least 6 feet,' " Wentz says. Eventually his growth spurt came -- he now stands 6-5 -- but he didn't play quarterback until he was a senior, so he didn't get a single Division I scholarship offer. His profile was so low, in fact, that recruiting site Rivals.com didn't have a bio page for him. "Carson was always really intelligent, and he was a real worker," says Doug Wentz, Carson's dad. "So we figured he'd have success. Maybe one day he'd get a shot in an NFL camp. But never in a million years did we see all this unfolding."
He redshirted as a freshman, then spent two more years on the bench before he won the NDSU starting job as a junior. He did win two FCS titles as a starter and play in a pro-style offense, but no matter how impressive his film is, it's hard to overlook one red flag: He threw just 612 passes his entire career. For comparison's sake, Jared Goff, the other highly regarded QB in this draft, threw 1,569, including 529 in his final year at Cal.
Should it matter? When you watch Wentz throw a football, when you see the way he uses his legs -- and a torso that's as thick as a whiskey barrel -- to drive the ball through the air, you see why NFL front offices don't seem to care that Wentz didn't face the highest level of competition in college. He looks like a burly lumberjack whipping a hatchet with a flick of his wrist. Scouts and agents, in love with Wentz's frame and mobility, started paying attention midway through his junior year. After that season, he was invited to be a counselor at Nike's Elite 11 Quarterback Competition, where he held his own against bigger names such as Deshaun Watson, Cody Kessler, Christian Hackenberg and J.T. Barrett. "That was a nice confidence boost," Wentz says. "But in general, I don't really struggle with my self-confidence."
When Wentz broke his wrist midway through last season, several agents courting him suggested he withdraw from school the way UCLA linebacker Myles Jack did after a season-ending knee injury. Wentz asked Ryan Tollner, the agent he eventually signed with, what he thought. Tollner was blunt: It sounded like a horrible idea. As a quarterback, NFL teams are looking at you, trying to measure what kind of leader you are. What kind of leader bails on his team?
"Exactly," Wentz told Tollner. "I just wanted to see what you'd say. I would never leave my team."
Twelve weeks after he had a pin surgically inserted, his wrist was healed and one game remained. In the FCS national championship against Jacksonville State, Wentz ran for two touchdowns and threw for another, helping the Bison win their fifth consecutive title. "Carson is the face of North Dakota right now," says Bison coach Chris Klieman. "I think he could run for governor."
Hours after the win, Wentz flew to California to begin training for the draft. He didn't take a single day off, which is not surprising to those who know him. If he ends up with the Browns, it will be easy to cast him as the anti-Johnny Manziel. Wentz earned an A in every class he ever took. He's been with his girlfriend, Melissa, since high school. He likes to drink a little beer now and then, but in college his idea of a wild night involved playing pool with his offensive line at a sparsely populated bar. His senior year, when everyone knew he was headed to the NFL, he still had a reputation for showing up early for class -- classes people figured he might blow off -- to sit quietly and read his Bible. After games, he'd insist the staff upload film onto his iPad immediately so he could critique his performance. Occasionally on date nights, Melissa would take his phone away after catching him watching game film surreptitiously under the table.
IT'S 24 HOURS before his pro day, and Carson Wentz is reluctantly strolling through Scheels, the biggest sporting goods store in Fargo, looking at pairs of pants.
Nima Zarrabi of Rep1 Sports, the person charged with selling Wentz to the world, has been gently ribbing Wentz for weeks about his fashion choices. "Come on, Big Red, just throw me a bone here," Zarrabi teases. "How about a nice $100 pair of jeans?" No such luck. Wentz would rather run wind sprints than wear designer clothes.
Scheels was one of the first businesses to sign Wentz to an endorsement deal, a deal born out of his actual interests. In college he'd decompress by wandering the aisles here. Instead of looking at pants, he'd go upstairs and look at guns. Shotguns. Handguns. High-powered rifles. One of the few predraft indulgences he allowed himself was a $1,200 shotgun. But today, there are two camera crews tailing him, and he's hesitant to broadcast to the world a side of him that, while very normal for a kid growing up in North Dakota, might not play well in more liberal parts of the country. He decides against it but finds a loophole: One of Scheels' employees hands him a phone, and for five minutes he talks to the manager of the gun department about when they'll have the model he wants back in stock.
(Another notable anti-Johnny distinction: Carson is keenly self-aware.)
Hunting is an indispensable part of Wentz's life. His senior year, he arranged his class schedule so he'd have Tuesday mornings free. He and a friend would rise well before dawn so they could go duck or goose hunting 45 minutes outside of Fargo. Eventually he'd like to go on a hunting trip to New Zealand with his brother Zach, the only signing-bonus indulgence he's interested in. "I actually hated hunting the first time I went when I was a kid," Wentz says. "My dad took us deer hunting. We sat there for 30 minutes, and I felt like I was losing my mind. But in college, I fell in love with it. Football became a full-time job, and I needed an escape. I needed something that would mellow me out. There is just something about being out in open country, about seeing the sun rise over a pond, that's really beautiful."
When he decided to get a dog -- a golden retriever he named Henley -- he wanted to teach her to hunt, so he researched the process with the same intensity with which he approaches game film. He talked to friends, read for hours on the internet and found that the best way to train a dog to fetch a duck or a pheasant was to use live pigeons. In an attempt to save money, he spent a day trying to catch pigeons in the park with a box. It didn't work, so he relented and bought 10 pigeons for $5 each, plucked their flight feathers and kept them in his house. On the weekends, he'd take them to a field so Henley could learn to chase them. Eventually it became second nature.
"Promise you won't judge me for that story," he says. "This is what people do."
Whatever franchise drafts him, Henley is coming with. She'll be his only roommate for at least a year. He and Melissa have decided they won't live together until they're married. "That's really important to both of us, and to both our families," he says. He doesn't want to leave behind some of the values that shaped him, but he knows the world is going to change him in ways he can't even comprehend yet. He understands there is much he's naive about, but what matters is learning from his mistakes. When he was training in Irvine, California, in the winter, Wentz sheepishly had to explain to Zarrabi one day that someone had broken into his rental car.
"I've learned," he says, "that you can't get away with leaving your wallet in the car like you can in North Dakota."
IT'S AN HOUR before his pro day, and Wentz is tugging on his beard again, standing in a hallway in the Fargodome. He and Lindley have scripted 65 throws he'll make in front of NFL scouts, and Wentz has been practicing, and visualizing, every last one of them for months. Ask him how he slept last night in anticipation of the workout and Wentz smiles but doesn't entirely answer. "Sleep is overrated," he says.
The day before, Cleveland's new coach, Hue Jackson, called Wentz to say he was stranded in Chicago because of the weather and might not make it. Wentz's anxiety intensified. "I'm not an idiot, I can make adjustments to my life," Wentz says. "But I like having a schedule."
In the end, Jackson made it and brought along Pep Hamilton, the Browns' associate head coach. They were the only NFL coaches there. Jackson and Hamilton asked Wentz to spend an hour with them before his workout, going over the plays they gave him weeks ago. Wentz thinks he impressed, but it's hard to be sure. Lindley warned him not to gush too much about how they did things at North Dakota State. You're not North Dakota's prodigal son anymore, he explained; you're a grown man someone is going to gamble $20 million on. "You don't want to get a reputation as a High School Harry," Lindley told Wentz. "That's a bad rap to have. You do that and you won't have a single friend in that locker room. You can be a Bison for life, but now you have to be your own guy."
Five minutes into the official throwing session, Wentz's arm strength and accuracy, especially when he's on the move, have scouts gawking in awe. The ball hums as it comes out of his hand and knifes through the air. He throws 45 passes before a single ball touches the ground. He shows touch on his deep throws and velocity on his passes to the sideline. One scout mentions how much he appreciates that Wentz didn't blare music during his workout the way Manziel did. It's a little thing, but it shows how serious Wentz is about treating this like a job interview.
As Wentz is wrapping up, Hamilton steps forward and asks whether anyone minds if he runs a few more plays with Wentz. He's holding a water bottle. Wentz knows what's coming. As he pretends to take the snap, Hamilton squirts water on the ball, drenching it completely. It comes out of Wentz's hands wobbling like a pheasant hit by shotgun pellets, skipping at the feet of his receiver. Nervous laughter fills the dome.
They line up again. Hamilton squirts water on the football, but this time Wentz gets a better grip on the throw, zipping it 15 yards down the field for an easy completion. He's starting to get a feel for this, his 10-inch hands digging into the ball. Another completion. On his final pass, Wentz throws one of his best of the day, hitting a receiver in the hands on the far sideline, drops of water spiraling off the ball and spraying everywhere. Hamilton nods as the small crowd in the stands applauds, then says he's seen enough.
Maybe it means nothing. Maybe they'll draft someone else instead. But as he's walking toward Jackson, both of them already eager to catch a plane, Hamilton can't resist catching Jackson's eye and offering his silent, one-word review: Wow.