The long, arduous countdown to Carson Wentz's comeback
PHILADELPHIA—Four days after knee surgery and 263 days from the start of the 2018 season, Carson Wentz lay on his couch and watched the Philadelphia 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 Super Bowl 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.' "
Wentz is 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."
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 Football Championship Subdivision title. 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."
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.
Here's part of his journey.
Post-op: T-minus 267 days
Carson Wentz walks off the field after injuring his leg against the Rams on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, Calif.
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."
The Super Bowl: T-minus 215 days
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 Mill's "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."
The Proposal: T-minus 213 days
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."
The Rehab, Part II: T-minus 207 days
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.
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.
The Camp: T-minus 47 days
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 Return: T-minus 18 days
Carson Wentz rolls out to throw, in the rain, during the Eagles' practice session on Aug. 19. at the NovaCare Complex.
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.
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."
The Decision: T-minus three days
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.
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