In the weeks leading up to the NFL draft, Carson Wentz had an unglamorous living situation. Along with five roommates and three dogs, he was sharing a house near the North Dakota State campus. Wentz, who was the starting quarterback for the Bison for two years, described it as a "total college spot." It had five bedrooms, stains on the carpets, and dishes piled high in the sink.
Each night Wentz slept with his 3-year-old golden retriever, Henley, on an air mattress in the living room. They'd snuggle under a worn red comforter next to a small TV. There was no cable. Wentz couldn't even watch himself on ESPN.
When Wentz showed his agent his digs, his agent told him: "No one's life is about to change more than yours."
The changes began on the night of April 28, when the Philadelphia Eagles drafted Wentz with the second pick in the first round. It was quite an accomplishment for someone who didn't receive a high-level Division I scholarship offer and who started just two and a half years at quarterback in high school and college combined.
BIG MAN ON CAMPUS
During Wentz's five seasons with North Dakota State, the Bison went 71-5 and won the FCS championship each year. Wentz was the starter for the last two seasons. His report card was perfect, never even an A-minus. And his course work in health and physical education meant that he regularly volunteered, sometimes with children.
Wentz is the latest product of the most dominant football program that few fans outside the state have ever heard of. The Bison are winners of 13 national titles (eight in Division II; the last five in FCS, which is one step below the top level of college football, FBS). The program accounted for seven NFL players last season alone.
Wentz grew up in Bismarck, less than 200 miles from the North Dakota State campus. He was a hyperactive child. He never stopped, never stayed inside. Heard of three-sport athletes? Wentz competed in six. He begged his older brother, Zach, to play football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer, and golf with him.
Football wasn't always at the top of that list. Wentz injured his right shoulder playing baseball one spring, which prevented him from playing QB his junior year at Century High. By the time he was a 6'5", 200-pound senior (from a 5'8", 125-pound freshman), recruiters started to take notice. A few, anyway. Central Michigan called. So did North Dakota State.
"He was a tall, lanky kid with a superstrong arm and speed," says Bison receiver Zach Vraa. "He picked things up faster than anybody I've ever seen." Including forks. Wentz ate his way to 235 pounds, squeezing in four daily trips to the dining hall.
When Randy Hedberg became the Bison's quarterbacks coach before Wentz's junior season, the other staff members told him, "Wentz is special; he can play in the NFL." On the field, finally starting that season, Wentz suggested they might be right. He threw for 3,111 yards and scored 32 touchdowns.
He also showed NFL-level composure. He led fourth-quarter comebacks in three of four 2014 playoff games, often with plays he called himself. "Like it was no big deal," says NDSU coach Chris Klieman.
When the Bison lost last October to South Dakota on a last-whistle field goal, it marked their second defeat of the season and only their fifth since the start of 2011. Wentz went to bed that night with a sore right wrist. An X-ray revealed his throwing hand was broken.
The QB scheduled surgery for that Wednesday, but when the day rolled around, coaches spied him in the quarterbacks' room, analyzing game film with his backup, Easton Stick. Wentz figured he wouldn't play another college game unless Stick was able to lead NDSU deep into the playoffs. "No pressure," Wentz joked. "You only have my college career in your hands."
With Wentz mentoring him, Stick closed out the regular season with five straight wins, followed by three playoff victories. Some people encouraged Wentz to think about forgetting 2015 and preparing for the NFL draft instead. His response: "That sounds terrible."
Three weeks after Stick whipped Richmond 33--7 in the national semifinal, on the eve of the title game, Klieman announced that Wentz would be starting against top-ranked Jacksonville (Ala.) State. One day later, the senior threw for 197 yards and ran for 79 more, scoring three times in the 37--10 triumph. Afterward, he wrapped Stick in a bear hug.
Barely 36 hours later, Wentz was in Los Angeles working out with journeyman quarterback Ryan Lindley. He'd called up Lindley, who also played college at a small school (San Diego State), a few weeks earlier. Wentz peppered him with questions for nearly three hours. Now they needed to find a way to satisfy those QB-needy teams who might consider drafting a small-school prospect with little starting experience against perceived lesser competition.
Their showcase started at the Senior Bowl, where Wentz played the first quarter for the North team and completed 6 of 10 attempts for 50 yards. He whizzed tight spirals past the heads of the best defenders FBS had to offer. The quarterback picked up his case four weeks later at the scouting combine, where he ran a 4.77 40-yard dash (tied for second among 15 passers) and crushed his interviews with general managers, as the buzz — top 15! top 10! top five! — began to build.
Wentz huddled with dozens of pro teams. They all knew about the Bison, all the wins and the titles, and when they heard about Wentz's grades and the community service, they wondered if he was too good to be true. "NFL people always look for flaws in lower-division players," says Hedberg. "I promise you, with Carson Wentz, they won't find any."
No longer was anyone questioning whether he deserved to be drafted in the first round, only whether he should start right away or spend a few seasons as a backup. "I gave him the Peyton Manning speech, the Tom Brady one," says former Buccaneers and Raiders coach Jon Gruden, who hosted Wentz as part of his QB Camp series on ESPN. "The relentless work ethic, the heart ... He's one of the most pro-ready I've seen in a while."
Obviously, the Eagles agreed. They traded up for the opportunity to take Wentz, whom they see as their quarterback of the future. Clearly the days of Wentz and Henley sleeping on an air mattress are over.
Photos: David Purdy/Getty Images (action), Todd Rosenberg (combine), Jon Durr/Getty Images (draft)