THEY'RE HOPING for good weather next Thursday night in Bismarck, N.D., where as many as 15,000 people are expected to crowd into and around the Community Bowl stadium, set against a hillside, to watch a broadcast of the first round of the NFL draft, live from Chicago.
Carson Wentz, the quarterback the Eagles are expected to select after trading up to the second overall spot, is a Bismarck native.
"This is a big deal for the state of North Dakota, not just Bismarck," Century High football coach Ron Wingenbach said Thursday afternoon. "That will be a very, very exciting night."
About 200 miles east, in Fargo, Randy Hedberg agreed.
"There's not a lot of places you can go and they don't ask what's going to happen with Carson," said North Dakota State's quarterbacks coach. "He's a big asset to our state. One that North Dakota's very proud of."
Wingenbach has known Wentz since he was a tee-ball player. Hedberg has been at NDSU only three years, but he tried to recruit Wentz when Wentz played for Wingenbach and Hedberg was coaching at Southern Illinois. Both men have watched the evolution of the state's most famous redhead into one of the two QBs whose potential persuaded teams to trade up to draft them. The Rams dealt with the Titans last week, to nab Cal's Jared Goff, we are told. Then, on Wednesday, the Eagles completed a deal with the Browns to give new coach Doug Pederson a shot at building his tenure around Wentz.
Wingenbach watched Wentz develop from a 5-9, 140-pound high school freshman at Century to a 6-4, 205-pound senior (on his way to 6-5, 237 now). But even after Wentz grew tall and strong, Wingenbach didn't envision what has unfolded since NFL scouts began circling, about a year ago.
"I think I'd be lying if I said that five years ago, I thought I'd be talking to you about the NFL," Wingenbach said. "He certainly had a lot of skill, but you just don't dream about those things in Bismarck, North Dakota."
Hedberg, who started four games at quarterback for the Tampa Bay Bucs in 1977, remembers when he first started thinking about things such as draft parties and a national media spotlight for his pupil. The Bison were trailing late in their playoff matchup against South Dakota State after the 2014 season, starting a drive from its 24. Seven hurry-up plays later, the Bison were 12 yards from the Jackrabbits' end zone.
"He was so poised; he did a little play-action fake, and then he threw a strike to our freshman receiver in the corner of the end zone," Hedberg recalled. "It was delivered the only place it could be delivered for a touchdown . . . He has a knack for getting the ball to the correct person in a tight situation."
The scouts started showing up soon after that; by the start of the 2015 season Hedberg said just about every NFL team had made the trek to Fargo. In Bismarck, Wingenbach remembers thinking, "This'll be a big year for him."
Then it really wasn't. Wentz broke his right wrist on the second drive against South Dakota on Oct. 17. Though he finished that game, Wentz missed the Bison's next eight contests. He came back for the Football Championship Subdivision title win over Jacksonville (Ala.) State, the Bison's fifth title in a row at what used to be the I-AA level.
"He could easily have said, 'Hey, I'm not going to play in that championship game, I've been invited to the Senior Bowl, I'm gonna go play there' . . . He did it because he's a great teammate," Hedberg said. "He wanted to go and win a championship with the guys he came in with. I think that really speaks to his character and his competitiveness."
Senior Bowl week, Wentz made the most of his first chance to practice and play with and against big-school players. Meetings with NFL teams went well. Hedberg said he wasn't surprised.
"He's battled his way to put himself in this position," Hedberg said. "He's worked hard at it. As a fan, or as a person from the outside looking at it, you see what he does on the field; you've probably watched the games, his highlights. But the people who are able to sit in on those individual meetings with him - he's impressive. He'll blow you away with how he can talk football. Whether it's coverages, whether it's protections. He can process extremely fast at the line of scrimmage."
This matches what Pederson said about Wentz on Monday, in previewing the draft:
"If you didn't see him, the fact that he played at a smaller school, at a lower level, might be an issue. But when you finally get him into your building, have a chance to visit with him, and just break it down, this kid is impressive. I'm excited to see where he goes and just follow his career."
(In retrospect, that last bit would seem to be Pederson trying to be sly.)
The Eagles have spent a lot of time with Wentz, at the Senior Bowl and the Scouting Combine, on his recent visit to NovaCare, and on that trek to Fargo from which an Eagles fan tweeted restaurant photos of Jeffrey Lurie, Howie Roseman and Pederson toasting the man who would be quarterback. Obviously, they liked what they heard in those encounters, and what they saw on film.
"He has a very good, compact delivery. The ball comes out quick," Hedberg said. "And he can throw from a lot of different platforms. (Throwing across the field), it's got to be there in a hurry. I think you'll see that (from Wentz). And he'll play with great poise. He's very confident in his skill level. He's a winner."
Wingenbach said the NFL (and presumably the Eagles) will be getting someone with the kind of focus the league demands, "willing to put in 18-hour days."
"He's a football junkie. This guy is a football guy. He gets it," Hedberg said. "He understands what it takes to break down a video . . . there's players that watch two hours of video and they don't know what they watched. This young man, he knows what he's watching and he knows what he's looking for. He's capable of doing that at a high level."
Philly is a tad different from Bismarck or Fargo. Hedberg said that while there might be more fans and more media in a Northeastern city, "Bison Nation" is a real thing in North Dakota - Wentz is used to being the focal point of a team followed fervently by everyone he encounters, every day, all year.
"I don't think he's going to shy away from anything, as far as any criticism he might get; he's going to stand up there and take it," Hedberg said. "I don't think anything's going to be too big for Carson."
Hedberg agrees, though, with the Eagles' stated plan of letting Wentz sit and learn for at least a year while Sam Bradford plays. "I don't think any rookie quarterback should be expected to start his first game," Hedberg said.
Hedberg would like to visit, if Wentz ends up playing for the Eagles. He would like to replace the memory of his own first NFL start: a 13-3, season-opening Tampa Bay loss to the Birds at Veterans Stadium.
"I remember the field was very hard," he said, "and we got beat."