A mental coach, marriage and more: Inside Carson Wentz's comeback

PHILADELPHIA -- One of the first text messages awaiting Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz after word of his season-ending knee injury came down last December was from his friend and mental coach, Ben Newman.

“You’ve been in this situation before, and you are a special human being,” wrote Newman, who has been with Wentz since his days at North Dakota State. “I know you don’t need me to tell you this, but go do for Nick Foles what you did for Easton Stick. And be there for the team and help this team see things that they don’t see possible for themselves.”

The part of the message Newman stressed in the retelling of that moment was, “I know you don’t need me to tell you this ...”

Newman first started working with Wentz during Wentz's senior year in 2015. Newman couldn’t quite figure out why the Bison were bringing him in as a performance coach, seeing as they had just rattled off four straight FCS national championships. What help could they possibly need? But there he was, standing in front of the room addressing the players. His first impression of Wentz was a lasting one.

“I walked in, and Carson is sitting in the front row. He’s got his glasses on. He’s got a notebook,” Newman said. “He, and everybody in that room, wanted an opportunity to get better.”

Newman witnessed Wentz’s turbulent and ultimately triumphant senior year up close, then watched from afar as history all but repeated itself two years later.

Wentz broke a bone in his throwing wrist six games into his senior season against rival South Dakota. He was told that he was finished for the season. This was well before he was being projected as a top NFL draft pick. Wentz was lightly recruited coming out of high school, had to wait until his junior year to take over as the full-time starter and then was stripped of the ability to lead his team and showcase himself for the NFL. He was hit hard by the news.

Still, Wentz quickly began channeling his efforts into helping Stick, a redshirt freshman who had the massive responsibility of filling in for Wentz and guiding a team with championship aspirations. Wentz helped Stick because that's what he was raised to do.

“You really look at his roots: He comes from Bismarck, North Dakota. He’s a small-town kid, and you stay in North Dakota, and you were never heavily recruited. All he’s ever known is you fight for your teammates, and you fight to be the best you can be with the talent that God gave you every day," Newman said. "And that’s it.”

Wentz traded a football for a clipboard and his helmet for a headset, and he supported Stick and the Bison from the sideline, just as he did for Foles during the Eagles' Super Bowl run. North Dakota State rattled off five straight wins under Stick, running the table to advance to the title game.

“Two weeks before the national championship game, Carson is cleared to play. And before anybody could go and have a conversation with Easton Stick, Easton goes to our quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg and to our head coach, coach [Chris] Klieman, and says, ‘I heard that Carson was cleared to play. Let him play. It’s his team, not mine.’ And Carson goes on to start and to win this fifth straight national championship. And to me, [good things happen] when things are done for the right reason," Newman said. "You saw that happen in Philadelphia last year: Nobody is being selfish.”

In the immediate aftermath of Super Bowl LII, Wentz prayed for strength to keep selfishness from overtaking him.

His second season in the pros played out similarly to his senior year -- the injury, transitioning into a support role, great team success -- but this time, he wasn’t able to return at season’s end. He couldn’t step onto the big stage and deliver the championship himself.

After celebrating with teammates and sharing a moment with Foles -- both quarterbacks gripping the Lombardi trophy while green and white confetti showered them -- Wentz went into the locker room, sat at his stall and bowed his head toward his knees, overcome with emotion.

“It was all kind of setting in and happening,” he told the Inquirer recently. "But I just had to thank the Lord for [the victory] and then also just pray against any feelings of jealousy because it was obviously a bittersweet last six games that I missed."

There was a vulnerable moment or two along the way, including one night in the hospital following season-ending ACL and LCL surgery in December, when Wentz was “really busted up,” a friend relayed, at the reality of the situation. With his then-girlfriend Maddie by his side, Wentz used that time to process what he needed to process.

Maddie remained by his side for the trying weeks that followed, acting both as his companion and his nurse.

“Behind every strong man is a strong woman. I know it first and foremost from my own experience," said Wentz's teammate and close friend Zach Ertz, tipping his cap to his wife, soccer star Julie Ertz. "But with Maddie, she’s been able to keep him grounded, keep him focused on what’s important. Always giving God all the glory. She’s been great for him.

“I think just through the lows, making sure he is not in a lull for too long ... He speaks about how she always maintains his level head. She always makes sure that he’s not dwelling too long on anything that’s gone poorly, just maintaining that perspective.”

The relationship was strengthened through that experience. Wentz proposed to Maddie just a couple days after the Super Bowl. In July, they were married.

The difficult situation didn't impact the way Wentz carried himself, his friends and teammates say. Even the night of the injury, while still at the Los Angeles Coliseum, some sensed he already had accepted the challenge that lay ahead and begun preparing the mental groundwork for his comeback. Days after the surgery, he was right back on task with the various projects he was working on and responsibilities in his life, surprising those who were still learning about the unrelenting nature of the 25-year-old North Dakotan. For Wentz, it was business as usual, only now there was the added duty of rehab, which he attacked like anything else: with uncommon precision and intensity.

Left tackle Jason Peters posted an Instagram video during the early stages of his recovery that summed up the eagerness of the franchise quarterback: There was Wentz, with a full brace still covering his left leg, hurling passes across the training room while sitting on his backside. He wasn't going to let the fact that he could barely move stop him from getting some throws in.

There was a close-knit group of veterans rehabbing at the same time that included Wentz, Peters, running back Darren Sproles, linebacker Jordan Hicks and safety Chris Maragos. They pushed one another and worked like hell to get right. But Wentz was so hard-wired in his approach that he'd sometimes grow frustrated with their pace and break off to do things at his own rate.

"When people are trying to hold him back, he's not very happy. He's a guy that wants to be in control. That's the way he is when he's leading the offense. He wants this exact. He wants things detailed out precisely." Zach Ertz

"Every day I see him, the guy is [exerting] himself to the point of exhaustion to get back," Maragos said. "His laser-focus attitude, there’s not one specific moment. It’s every day.”

Those close to Wentz wouldn't mind if he took a breather every once in a while, but the only time you're likely to see him resting on the couch for an hour is when he's icing something. If there is even a little bit of time between one task and the next, chances are Wentz will fill it with another.

Some claim that Wentz has a photographic memory, which combined with his incurable drive bred an ultra-efficient rehab process. If a doctor told him he needed to do a certain exercise for 10 minutes at a specific time, he did it exactly how and when he was supposed to.

It's no surprise, then, that Wentz was considered ahead of schedule in his recovery just about the entire way. Although he was held out of the first two games of the regular season, the numbers and the eye test suggested that Wentz was good to go earlier in the process.

"In his mind, he was probably ready a month ago," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Monday, shortly after announcing that Wentz had been cleared for contact and will play Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.

Wentz is essentially back in less than nine months, despite the fact that the multi-ligament damage delayed the start of his rehab by about six weeks. He hit about every benchmark set for him but ultimately had to cede control to the medical staff and Eagles brass, who erred on the side of caution and took the long view with their franchise quarterback.

"When people are trying to hold him back, he’s not very happy," Ertz said. "He’s a guy that wants to be in control. That’s the way he is when he’s leading the offense. He wants this exact. He wants things detailed out precisely.

"So when he decided to kind of let people control his rehab, it hasn’t always been how he’s wanted it to go, but he’s understood that they’re trying to do what’s best for him.”

The ironic thing, Newman said, is that he is supposed to be making Wentz better, but he has found the opposite to be true.

As a performance coach, Newman texts Wentz messages designed to focus and encourage daily, but unlike with many clients, he has concluded that Wentz doesn't really need them.

Newman, however, is greatly benefiting from the relationship. Wentz does everything with such purpose, Newman said, that "it makes me more intentional in my walk. It makes me a better coach. It makes me a better human being. He is that intentional of a person.”

Besides Wentz and the North Dakota State football team, Newman works with a host of other athletes and programs, on the pro and college levels, including the University of Alabama and the Miami Dolphins.

When he interacts with some of the titans of the industry, he tries to get to the bottom of a key question: What makes them great?

"What I have found, in elite performers like Carson or coach [Nick] Saban, is that their level of focus and attention to detail is so extreme, I think it’s probably even hard for the average person to understand," he said. "So the manner in which Carson is going to prepare for a game, the extra game film that he is willing to break down or the understanding of the playbook and the time that you’re going to spend with an offensive coordinator and the relationships that you build, most people aren’t willing to put in that kind of time.

"He’s been a professional since the day I met him.”