Sports The long, arduous countdown to Carson Wentz’s comeback | Jeff McLane
Four days after knee surgery and 263 days from the start of the 2018 season, Carson Wentz lay on his couch and watched the Eagles play the New York Giants about 80 miles north of his home in South Jersey.
He was miserable. Not only was his season over, but he was in pain. Unable to take care of himself and determine his future, the Type-A quarterback had to surrender the control that had him atop the NFL just a week earlier.
Wentz had to surrender to God, and on that December day he had to surrender to his nurse — then-girlfriend Maddie Oberg.
It wasn’t easy – for both.
“I felt terrible. I’m very stubborn. She can attest to that,” Wentz said. “Having her literally take care of me with like everything – I just felt so bad. And I wasn’t always the most pleasant patient. I don’t know if I was as nice as I should have been because I was already in a bad mood.
“But she was patient with me. I had to work through some things myself, continue to surrender everything to God’s plan, even though it was a challenge some days.”
Wentz’s last nine months could fill some lifetimes. On the football field, he went from MVP candidate to watching his team win a title without him. Off it, he proposed to Oberg two days after the Super Bowl and married her 11 days before the start of training camp.
And over that span – and beyond – Wentz attacked his recovery as he would a defense: with overachieving precision. His comeback is nearly complete. And while he didn’t meet his goal of being ready for the season opener Thursday night, he came close. He might have felt it was impossible 260 days ago, when he was a helpless patient, but he was certain about one thing.
“With Maddie by my side, I was like, ‘I can’t do this with anybody else,’ ” Wentz said recently. “We knew [we would marry] for a while, but that just further reconfirmed it. Going through that together, I was like, ‘Well, shoot, by my side for good, bad, ugly, everything.’ “
It’s unlikely he will have another nine months as rewarding and yet trying. The Eagles wouldn’t have won their first Super Bowl without him and he relished the moment. Amid the locker room celebration at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Wentz sat alone at his locker stall bent in prayer.
He thanked God for the victory, but he also asked for strength to fight any jealousy he may have toward his teammates. Wentz soaked in the atmosphere and knew he wanted to experience what Nick Foles, as the starting quarterback, just had, but he didn’t make any guarantees.
“I’m not big on promises, but I’m confident in the chance to get back there,” Wentz said last week. “I know it’s a lot of work. I know how much it took last year, the team, the camaraderie we had. There’s a lot that goes into it and I realize all that. No promises, but definitely it’s something we can do again.”
Wentz’s humility during the Super Bowl run has been an inspiration to many. His return should inspire, as well, for the way he devoted his every fiber to making the Eagles’ decision a difficult one. It wasn’t just his anterior cruciate ligament that he tore, but also the lateral collateral.
He’s not the first to overcome an ACL injury, not the first to return after tearing multiple ligaments, and not the first quarterback to attempt to come back within nine months. But he pushed the envelope during a rigorous rehab that motivated everyone at the NovaCare Complex – from the front office to coaches, the medical staff to players, veterans to rookies.
Wentz’s objective to be ready for Week 1 was always a high bar. The Eagles had to weigh a handful of games or less against potentially the next decade. Wentz has yet to reach his ceiling.
“If he stays healthy and keeps his head straight, which I have no doubt he will,” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said, “I think if his goal is to be the best player in the NFL, it’s attainable.”
Those closest to Wentz know the last nine months were arduous. There were bad days, like the one he had during the Eagles-Giants game. Even good days, like the Super Bowl, weren’t all good. And then there were physical restrictions, rehab delays, and practice setbacks, which were particularly stressful for the driven 25-year old.
“He wants to be in control. He wants to be doing things his way,” safety Chris Maragos said. “So he had to take a step back. For every move he makes there’s a reason why because there’s going to be two steps later a reason why he’s doing it.
“He knows the end goal and then he maps out the route it’s going to take to get there, even if there’s 10 steps to get there and he’s at step one.”
Wentz had suffered setbacks before. He broke his wrist and missed eight games during his senior year at North Dakota State, but he returned in time to win the Division I-AA championship. This injury was more significant. When he limped into the locker room at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Dec. 10 he knew his season was over.
There were tears, but Wentz’s cries weren’t like most players’. It wasn’t “Why me?” It was “There has to be a why.”
Tight end Zach Ertz, who was already out with a concussion, followed Wentz into the locker room. Ertz laid hands on his quarterback’s left knee as they prayed.
Tests confirmed torn ligaments the next day. James Bradley performed surgery two days later. Wentz posted a picture of him and his future wife post-op, their thumbs up, with the caption, “The comeback officially begins now.”
That was 267 days from the 2018 opener. Last week, Wentz allowed himself a moment to reflect on his accomplishments. He called it a “grueling process.” But he leaned on his Christian faith more than ever. And with his fiancee at his side, he had a co-pilot.
“I learned a lot about my faith, a lot how God’s working through these things,” Wentz said in May. “It’s not always easy. … I think on a personal level when you’re injured it’s really when you find the type of man, the type of character you’re made of.”
Oberg had already planned on spending her winter break from college in the Philadelphia area, but rather than enjoy the holiday with Wentz strictly as his girlfriend, she would also become his caretaker.
She waited on him after surgery. She chauffeured him to and from the NovaCare Complex. Wentz wasn’t required to attend the 6 a.m. quarterbacks meetings, but he insisted — “He’d come up and watch film with us kind of half asleep,” quarterback Nate Sudfeld said – and she got up early every morning to get him there on time.
“As young as they were – she’s younger than him – and just to see the maturity level and the commitment level,” Maragos said. “I was like, ‘Man, look at what she’s doing for him. Those first few days are tough and she’s right there with him along the way.”
More than anything, she was Wentz’s closest confidant. While he didn’t outwardly display angst, or treat anyone differently, according to Maragos, there was an internal struggle and the occasional moment when he would express doubt to her. But she offered encouragement and occasionally a righteous word when necessary.
“That’s what a good woman needs to do – call you out when you’re acting like you shouldn’t be,” Ertz said. “At that moment, I’m sure Carson was looking in and grieving. And for her to be around and say, ‘Hey, you need to cheer up, like you’re going to be OK, you trusted God for everything else, you need to trust him through this, too.'”
There were happy moments, of course. Wentz was voted to his first Pro Bowl a week after his injury. On Christmas Eve, he posted a picture on Instagram of him and Maddie and their prize-winning cookies.
“She’s been there with me ever since surgery, taking care of me, driving me to the facility, doing everything,” Wentz said. “So she’s been amazing, supporting me, encouraging me. I owe her a lot.”
Wentz needed crutches to get around for the first month or so. Rehab started slowly. For someone who maxes out his time and talks as if he’s got a train to catch, the process was excruciating.
The Eagles, meanwhile, clinched the No. 1 seed and kept winning in the playoffs. Maragos, who was also out for the season after suffering a season-ending knee injury in October, said there were early days in rehab when he sensed that Wentz was burdened. He’d send him Bible verses.
“He was going to be MVP of the league. We we’re going to the Super Bowl,” Maragos said. “You see those things that he’s working through.”
And yet Wentz didn’t go underground. He hung out with the winners of his AO1 Foundation’s fund-raiser during the Eagles’ season finale and playoff games. And he kept attending team meetings, practices, and film sessions, trying to find any way to help Foles and Sudfeld.
“I know a lot of guys gained an awful amount of respect for him staying engaged,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said, “because, quite frankly, being in the league as long as I have a lot of the times, even the best-meaning people, when they can’t be involved with it, sometimes check out.”
When Wentz finally spoke with reporters on Jan. 26, a few days before the Eagles would depart for Minneapolis, the crutches were gone and he was using a cane to get around. He still wasn’t allowed to throw, but he improvised and started tossing passes while seated.
“I don’t know if anyone recommended it,” Wentz said. “I was just too stubborn not to do anything.”
Super Bowl week was bittersweet. Wentz and the Eagles’ other injured players – Maragos, linebacker Jordan Hicks, tackle Jason Peters, and running back Darren Sproles — attended media night and were part of the preparations, but there was an unspoken emotion.
“We had this thing where we looked at each other,” Wentz said, “and we knew it was killing us inside.”
The Eagles won, of course. Wentz celebrated and was eventually brought up onto the podium to hold the Lombardi Trophy. But it was Foles’ night. He eventually made his way into the locker room, where players began smoking cigars and taking swigs of liquor and champagne. Meek Mills’ “Dreams and Nightmares” was blaring on the sound system.
Wentz was a solitary figure with his back to the party.
“It was all kind of setting in and happening,” he said. “Obviously, I was very thankful and excited. But I just had to A, thank the Lord for it, and then also just pray against any feelings of jealousy because it was obviously a bittersweet last six games that I missed.
“I was genuinely excited for the guys, but there was angst not playing, being out there. I was praying and I was just looking around, taking it all in. … You realize what it was like so that hopefully we can get there and I can be on the field.”
When Foles finally made it to the locker room, he embraced Wentz. They sat down and began laughing along with Sudfeld. Cameras narrowed in, so they went back into the training room, prayed, and spoke with NBC analyst Tony Dungy.
Wentz received his share of credit for the victory. While his first title didn’t play out the way he had expected, he took pride in the accomplishment. When a reporter asked him two months later if he considered the coming season as his quest for title No. 1, he seemed baffled by the question.
“I believe we won the Super Bowl last year,” Wentz said.
Two days after the Super Bowl, Wentz was in Kentucky. He had been planning how to propose to Oberg for weeks, asking his closest friends on the team like Ertz, Maragos, and Hicks about the engagement rings they bought their wives.
Wentz met his future wife in Haiti when he did mission work with former teammate Jordan Matthews in April 2017. She was there as an intern for Mission of Hope. Even though the couple had been together for less than a year, Wentz’s friends said they weren’t surprised by the quick turnaround.
“Carson’s such a direct guy. When he knows, he knows,” Maragos said. “He’s not the type of guy that wastes time.”
Wentz reserved the Kentucky Castle near his girlfriend’s hometown of Lexington, lit the top landing with candles, and dropped to a knee – his right one. A photographer friend took pictures and Wentz posted the announcement on social media.
The timing seemed peculiar, but Wentz has a way of compartmentalizing his life. He keeps business and his personal life separate, and when he was asked if his wife could be interviewed for this story, he politely declined.
“I know to the world football is like life, but I try to keep it all separate. Football – I love it and I’m passionate about it. But when I go home, I’m home. Football – I turn it off. To me, our relationship and where I was at with football,” Wentz said, referring to the timing of the engagement, “those are two separate entities.”
After the Super Bowl parade, Wentz’s rehab intensified. He spent nearly every day at the Eagles’ practice facility working out with Maragos, Hicks, and Peters. They pushed each other and had competitions in the training room, but when they shifted to the weight room, Wentz grew impatient with the pace.
“We’re just kind of hanging out, relaxing, talking, getting going, and Carson’s like, ‘Forget you guys, I’m leaving,'” Hicks said.
When they finally joined Wentz, he’d be halfway done.
“With everything I do, I try to be efficient. I don’t sit around well,’ Wentz said. “They’d make a 45-minute workout last an hour and 20 minutes, when I’d take an hour workout and make it 45 minutes.”
The extra offseason time at the NovaCare allowed Wentz to watch more film of last season. He said he looked for ways to improve the offense and took notes. There were days when he was sore, but when non-injured players like center Jason Kelce sporadically bumped into him in the weight room, they saw a physical transformation.
“He was consistently trying to push the envelope,” Kelce said.
Said receiver Mack Hollins: “If he couldn’t run, he’ll do pushups till he’s tired.”
Wentz said that he made gains in upper-body muscle mass. When he was cleared to start throwing from a standing position, he watched video of his delivery to make sure his mechanics were in order. He also had his throwing coach, Adam Dedeaux of 3DQB, fly out from Southern California to observe.
“Just to make sure everything looked good,” Wentz said.
By the start of workouts for the 2018 season, the Eagles had begun transitioning Wentz back into his role as starting quarterback. Foles hadn’t been traded and he would be the backup, holding down the fort until the starter returned, however long it took.
The optics made it clear: Wentz was made available to reporters on April 17 – Day 1 of the offseason program — a week before Foles. Many of the questions they fielded were about their relationship and how they would handle potential friction.
Wentz said that they were “brothers in Christ” and that their shared faith “breaks down every barrier.”
“There’s so much more to life,” he said, “such a bigger purpose than arguing over little things”
The Eagles reworked Foles’ contract to give him a little more money and them an option year for 2019. He said there was no reason to discuss the restructuring with Wentz.
“Carson still knows where he is,” Foles said.
Wentz had started running at this point. He said he’d sometimes catch himself looking ahead to the finish line.
“You’ve seen the horror stories of people coming back too soon,” Wentz said. “I can assure you I’ll be smart about it.”
He’d often stop by Doug Pederson’s office to share ideas about the offense and discuss his progress. The Eagles coach said he didn’t have to worry about Wentz’s reasserting himself as a leader. It’s been organic since the day he was drafted.
“He hasn’t been like, ‘I’m the boss,’ ” Hollins said. “That’s not how Carson leads.”
Wentz had become more vocal by his second season and was still growing into the role, according to Jenkins. But there wasn’t a player in the locker room, the safety said, who didn’t respect the quarterback because he has “a posture, a demeanor of how he goes about his work.”
Despite rehab and workouts, Wentz still devoted time to his foundation and other causes. He returned to Haiti in April for another mission with Ertz and Sudfeld and to work on the sports complex he was helping to build.
On May 4, he participated in “The Faith Playbook” seminar at Calvary Chapel of Philadelphia with other teammates. Wentz spoke about the travails of his recovery and the experience of having to watch the Eagles win the Super Bowl without him.
“At the end of the day, Jesus Christ got all the glory from Coach Pederson, from Nick,” Wentz said during the gathering. “It didn’t matter.”
Before formal practices began on May 22, Pederson said that Wentz hadn’t been “cleared to participate in a practice setting right now.” But the quarterback followed his coach for an unscheduled news conference and hinted at how much he would do only minutes later.
Wentz was involved in only individual drills, but he did far more than most media members in attendance had expected. For comparison, Sam Bradford did significantly less at around the same time three years before, and he was nine months removed from knee surgery.
Wentz wore a clunky brace and fiddled with it – something he would often do over the next four months. But he said he had gotten over the mental aspect of trusting his knee. Two weeks later, he was running with the second-team offense during seven-on-seven drills.
His passes were seemingly moving at higher velocity. In what would become a common refrain, if Wentz’s injury was unknown and his brace gone, he appeared as he did pre-Dec. 10.
“Looked like the same old Carson out there,” tackle Lane Johnson said.
At the conclusion of minicamp in June, Wentz said that there would be minor milestones to check off when training camp started in six weeks, but he just needed to be “cleared for contact” to be ready by Week 1.
“Inside he’s chomping,” Pederson said.
Before spring workouts ended, Wentz held his inaugural charity softball game at Citizens Bank Park. He didn’t play, but two dozen Eagles did. Twenty-five thousand fans bought tickets and it was announced that over $850,000 was raised for the AO1 Foundation, with most of it earmarked for the Haiti sports complex.
Wentz traveled back to his native North Dakota during the summer break for a fund-raiser and charity camp for youths. And after marrying on July 15 at the Lake House Inn in Perkasie, the couple honeymooned in Greece. All the while, he continued his rehab.
“Even on the honeymoon,” Wentz said during his first news conference of training camp.
“I got some workouts in,” he said with a grin and dramatic pause as reporters erupted into laughter. “In the fitness center.”
By the third day of practice, Wentz was taking snaps in competitive team drills. He was rolling out and evading rushers, but defensive tackle Elijah Qualls nearly fell into his lower body. Mayock, who was in attendance, was surprised to see Wentz out there.
“What worried me is the uncertainty of people rolling into your lower body in the pocket,” Mayock said. “When there are bodies around the guy like that, to me that’s cause for concern.”
Wentz made several “wow” throws. A day later, the Eagles dialed him back and kept him out of team drills. Pederson said he had seen enough – “enough to ease my mind” – but Wentz said the team wanted to keep him in the Bubble Wrap of a “controlled environment.”
The Eagles had to balance Wentz’s competitiveness against medical advice. They team had hired new doctors over the summer — with Stephen Stache as head physician and Christopher Dobson as head orthopedist – further complicating the process.
“I might feel one way,” Wentz said, “but science says one thing and textbooks might say another.”
Pederson said there was no setback with the knee. Wentz was never likely to play in the preseason, but he didn’t take team-drill snaps for the next three weeks.
“It’s frustrating. … Without a doubt, it’s tough to just sit there and watch,” Wentz said. “I did it last season. Now getting your feet wet, but kind of going in and out – it’s not what I would like, but I’m making the most of it.”
Wentz didn’t show his frustrations.
“He hasn’t moped around the building,” quarterbacks coach Press Taylor said.
During open practices at Lincoln Financial Field, Wentz stayed after and signed autographs for fans, once tossing a football to a young boy until he caught it. Toward the end of camp, he hung with his wife, his brother, Zach, and his brother’s wife and daughter after practice.
Wentz also continued his relationship with the Kusters family, who attended camp two weeks after his practice time had been reduced. Last year, the quarterback had developed a bond with Lukas “Dutch Destroyer” Kusters, who spent a day at the NovaCare for his Make-A-Wish.
“Seeing them again and knowing what they went through with Lukas,” Wentz said, “definitely puts everything I’m going through in perspective.”
Wentz, to this day, wears the “Dutch Destroyer” bracelet Lukas gave him.
“He never takes it off,” Rebecca Burmeff, Lukas’ mother, said. “It’s in every picture – his engagement photos, his wedding photos. It’s always there.”
Two days later, when asked if his goal of being ready by Week 1 was attainable, Wentz said, “It’s going to be close.”
On Aug. 19, the first day practices were closed to media, Wentz was back for team drills. When he walked into the huddle players started clapping and giving him high-fives.
“Everybody was hyped,” guard Brandon Brooks said. “He turned red.”
Wentz said that he felt more significance at the start of camp, but he appreciated the sentiment.
“I try not to make it a big deal,” Wentz said. “It’s still just practice. It’s where I left off. It’s what I know.”
He’s a perfectionist at practice. A pass thrown on the wrong shoulder may have him smack his hands together in frustration. Taylor said that he could have “honest conversations” with Wentz about expectations. He was promoted, in part, to maintain continuity in the quarterbacks room.
“Some coaches just say, ‘When you see A and you see B, the results got to be C. This is how we’re doing it,’ ” Mayock said. “With this group, last year and this year, it’s this collaboration like, ‘Hey, if you see A and you see B, where to do what to go, how do you want to do it, what are you most comfortable with?’ “
The three quarterbacks speak a “common language,” Taylor said, and not just because of their religious beliefs. There’s inside jokes, busting chops, and competitions, like when they play “Two Ball,” a game in which tennis balls are tossed in a circle at rapid pace.
Wentz usually wins, but he had increasingly less spare time as the season neared. He was grinding and doing everything possible to make the Eagles’ decision a difficult one.
“I just realize time in general is tight between preparation and obviously, this year with my wife and trying to spend time at home,” Wentz said. “I’m not big on being here to just be here, to waste time. I love the relationship with guys that come throughout the day, but I know when I have a busy schedule.
“I’m like, ‘All right, let’s do this at this time, let’s do that.’ That’s how I’m wired.”
Wentz split first-team repetitions with Foles before the final two preseason games, but he had yet to be cleared for contact. Two hours before the finale against the New York Jets, he worked out with accuracy. Toward the end, he launched a ball nearly 70 yards through the air to Ertz.
A day later, as the Eagles neared a decision, Wentz was at an Acme in South Philadelphia serving free food from “Thy Kingdom Crumb,” a food truck funded by his foundation and the Connect Church in Cherry Hill.
On Saturday, a report surfaced that Wentz wouldn’t be ready by Thursday. Pederson angrily refused to confirm the news the next day, but he said that Wentz had still not yet been cleared and a day later officially announced that Foles would start against the Falcons.
Wentz didn’t miss a day of rehab or practice, and yet, he had fallen short of his objective, however ambitious. After Monday’s practice, in which he was limited, he just shrugged when asked to comment.
But 30 minutes or so later he posted a picture of himself gazing toward the light at the end of a tunnel with the following verse from Proverbs: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.”
The overachieving Wentz may have surrendered his will, but accomplishing his goal was never guaranteed. He will eventually return this season, but the journey was as much as the destination.