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Carson Wentz has a chance to be NFL's top pick, stoking North Dakota's pride

Carson Wentz has a chance to be NFL's top pick, stoking North Dakota's pride
North Dakota State's quarterback Carson Wentz is seen in front of a trophy case inside the Fargodome in Fargo, North Dakota. (Gary Klein / Los Angeles Times)

Beth Campbell sits behind a desk in the North Dakota Heritage Center, greeting visitors and cheerfully offering tidbits on state history.

Asked if she knows about Carson Wentz, she laughs.

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"If you live in North Dakota and you haven't heard of Carson Wentz," she says, "you're living under a rock."

Across a sprawling lawn in the state Capitol building, tour guide Darlene Neas takes it a few steps further.

"Everyone knows who Carson Wentz is," she says, "unless you're in a grave."

One day, Wentz might have his own exhibit in the state museum, or join the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Hall of Fame luminaries with painted portraits in the first-floor hallway of the Capitol.

The rangy, red-headed quarterback is set to make history.

The Rams, with the No. 1 pick in Thursday's NFL draft, will choose between North Dakota State's Wentz and California's Jared Goff. No football player from a North Dakota college has been selected in the first round of the draft, never mind the first pick.

So Wentz-mania has raged here for months.

At the Stadium Lodge bar and grill, just down the hill from where Wentz played for Century High, patrons buzz about his pro prospects.

"Everybody is excited about it and everybody's rooting for the guy," bartender Justin Mock says. "It's certainly the topic of most conversations in here."

That's the case across the room where Russ Patchen and Jerry Olson, both 85, are sharing a few beers. The two widowers socialize regularly and still hunt together every Tuesday in the fall.

Wentz's NFL future is discussed "all over town," Patchen says.

"All over the state," Olson adds.

Patchen said he attended Rams games at the Coliseum in the 1950s when he was in the military. Admission, he said, was 79 cents if he wore his uniform. He'd like to see Wentz playing for the Rams.

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"The athletic ability and field presence," Patchen said, shaking his head. "He's the whole package."

Olson is not as certain, cautioning that Wentz's experience playing for a smaller school might cause some to question him.

There is no doubt about one thing: Wentz won't be alone in Chicago for the draft this week.

In spirit, it seems, the entire state of 750,000 will be there right along with him.

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National championship trophies fill the colorful lobby of the North Dakota State football offices in the Fargodome, located about 200 miles east of Bismarck.

North Dakota State's quarterback Carson Wentz is seen outside the Fargodome in Fargo, North Dakota.
North Dakota State's quarterback Carson Wentz is seen outside the Fargodome in Fargo, North Dakota. (Gary Klein / Los Angeles Times)

The Bison have won 13 national titles, including the last five Football Championship Subdivision championships.

Carson Wentz greets a visitor, opens the door and strides easily across a marble floor engraved with the years of the championships.

Tugging at the sleeves of his red crew-neck shirt, he walks into an empty conference room, settles his 6-foot 5-inch frame into a swivel chair and exhales.

Wentz, 23, has been on the go since he returned from a wrist injury that sidelined him for eight games and led the Bison to a title-game victory over Jacksonville State.

The postseason tour included impressive showings at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis and his pro day workout in the Fargodome, exhibitions that skyrocketed his draft stock.

"Aside from the fact that it seems like the longest job interview ever, it's been fun," Wentz says, laughing.

Last week, a few days after the Rams traded up from No. 15 to No. 1 in the draft, Wentz was summoned to Oxnard for visits with Rams officials.

Goff followed a day later.

The two quarterbacks share the same agents and have worked out together in Irvine.

Wentz or Goff will be chosen by the Rams. The Philadelphia Eagles last week traded up for the No. 2 pick and they are expected to choose the other.

"He's a great kid and he's a good quarterback," Wentz says of Goff. "It's exciting knowing we're going to play each other for a long time as competitors."

Is it important to be the first pick?

"As a competitor, a little bit," Wentz says. "At the end of the day, you just want to go to a team that believes in you … and hopefully wants to build a franchise around you."

For the time being, Wentz is happy to be back in North Dakota, where he enjoys hunting and hanging out with friends.

But he says he is getting antsy "waiting in limbo" for the next phase of his career to begin.

"I'm kind of sick and tired of not having a playbook," he says. "I want to learn. I'm ready to go."

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On the drive along Interstate 94 from Bismarck to Fargo, motorists pass stark, eye-catching billboards that simply read "Be Nice" and "Be Polite."

Take an interchange toward the North Dakota State campus and another billboard salutes Fargo native Roger Maris, the New York Yankees slugger whose record 61 home runs in 1961 was eclipsed by Mark McGwire in 1998.

"FARGO'S ROGER MARIS Legitimate HOME RUN KING," the billboard reads.

Zach Wentz, 26, says people in Bismarck, Fargo and beyond embrace his younger brother because of his work ethic, determination and humble attitude that embodies the North Dakotan ideal.

"The whole state of North Dakota, when you look at the kid, says, 'He's real. He's genuine. He's a North Dakota person and he values everything that we as North Dakotans think is important,'" says Zach, who played baseball at North Dakota State and now coaches at Bismarck Legacy High.

Darin Erstad grew up in Jamestown, N.D., played baseball and football at Nebraska and was drafted No. 1 overall by the Angels in 1995. He enjoyed a 14-year major league career and is now the baseball coach at Nebraska.

But he keeps tabs on Wentz and is not surprised by the public support in his home state.

"It is one big family up there," Erstad says. "That's what we do."

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Wentz' path to the top of the draft was void of private youth coaching, seven-on-seven showcases and other modern trappings of the development process.

As a high school freshman, he was 5 feet 8 and weighed 125 pounds.

"He was all elbows and knees," Century Coach Ron Wingenbach says.

Wentz had one thought: "Lord, just help me be 6 feet tall." Anything more, like his father and brother, would be a bonus.

Wentz grew to 6-3 by his junior season but an arm injury forced him to play receiver and safety. He was 6-5 during his lone season as the starter, and his size and performance drew interest from a handful of mid-major schools.

But Wentz decided to attend North Dakota State, where Zach had been a walk-on quarterback before switching to baseball full time.

Wentz joined a roster that featured talented quarterback Brock Jensen, who now plays for the Ottawa Redblacks in the Canadian Football League.

Wentz red-shirted his first season and then sat for two more as Jensen led the Bison to three consecutive titles. But Wentz impressed on the field during practice and showed his football acumen in other ways.

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For example, the team's "ready list" is a sheet of 160 to 180 plays the offensive coordinator utilizes on game day and the quarterback wears on a wristband. Each week, Jensen was assigned the task of proofing the list for errors. Like an upperclassmen, he quietly gave the assignment to Wentz.

The first week, Wentz found five or six errors.

"Coach looked at me and was impressed," Jensen says "I told him, 'I can't take credit for this one. It was Carson.' Even as the backup, he knew every play. He would always find them."

Wentz, now 230 pounds, took over in 2014 and led the Bison to the championship, passing for 25 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions. He also ran for six touchdowns.

Last season, he suffered a wrist injury and sat out eight games but came back to start the title game and finished his career with another championship.

"Everything that he does is always beneficial, not only for him but the people around him," says tight end Lucas Albers, who came in as part of Wentz's class. "He did what he could do because he got everyone else around him to reach their full potential."

Former NFL coach Jon Gruden evaluated film of all the top quarterbacks and put seven, including Wentz, through his annual pre-draft quarterback camp.

Gruden likes Wentz's arm strength, intelligence and mobility. He's enthralled that Wentz played under center in a traditional system and called audibles and pass protections at the line of scrimmage.

But Gruden speaks most animatedly about Wentz's loyalty after he suffered the wrist injury.

"He helped develop a young quarterback," Gruden says during a teleconference with reporters. "He didn't leave town to start doing exercises with some mysterious strength coach to get ready for the draft.

"This guy finished. I love that about him."

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Wentz first showed his poise on a national stage at the Senior Bowl. He was one of eight quarterbacks at an event that, altogether, is nearly a week long. None of the others are regarded as potential first-round picks.

"Going in, I'm like, 'If people want to write me off like, 'Oh, he's FCS, he can't handle it,' let's go show what we can do,'' he says. "I went out and showed I can excel — not just be one of the guys. I can separate myself."

A month later at the combine, Wentz was competing side by side with Goff, Memphis' Paxton Lynch, Michigan State's Connor Cook and other top prospects.

"It's just pitch-and-catch," he says. "Don't make it bigger than it needs to be. … Just deliver the ball. And I thought I did that."

Wentz's pro day workout did nothing to slow his rise. Only three of the 65 passes he threw during a scripted session fell incomplete.

"I wanted to be perfect," he says. "But I walked off pretty confident how it went."

Wentz is conscious of those who doubt that a quarterback from an FCS school could be worthy of the top pick.

Terry Bradshaw, Phil Simms, Doug Williams, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco are quarterbacks from small colleges that won Super Bowls.

Only Bradshaw was chosen No. 1.

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FOR THE RECORD

April 24, 5:31 p.m.: An earlier version of this story said Terry Bradshaw was among a group of small-college quarterbacks who went on to win Super Bowls but weren't No. 1 draft picks. Bradshaw was selected with the first pick in the 1970 NFL draft.

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Wentz just wants an opportunity to show what he can do.

"If you can play, you can play — and I know I can," he says. "If anyone wants to doubt that, heck, I'm more than ready to prove you wrong."

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On Thursday night in Chicago, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will come onto a stage, stand in front of a podium and say, "With the first pick in the 2016 draft, the Los Angeles Rams select ..."

Wentz's father, Doug, says the process of getting to this point has been surreal.

"It's kind of like the birth of a child," he says of draft-day the anticipation. "Do you want to know if it's a boy or a girl right now and start planning? Or do you want to wait for that moment?"

Wentz and family members will be on hand in Chicago to celebrate whenever he is chosen.

The people of North Dakota will be waiting and watching together in their homes, in bars and restaurants … and at least one major public gathering in Bismarck.

Century Athletic Director Ben Lervick and marketing teacher Troy Olson were planning a draft party in the school gym, but as word spread it became clear that the building's 1,500-person capacity was not large enough.

"We started with something small and every day it just grew a little more and a little more," Lervick says.

The event has been moved to the community stadium, which features a scoreboard with a large video screen. There will be food trucks, inflatable games and combine-style activities for kids.

But the stadium is expected to go silent when Goodell steps to the microphone.

They will have something to cheer about regardless of whether Wentz is the first name called.

"I don't know if I feel the weight of the state as much as I just feel the support," Wentz says. "I've had countless people tell me they're going to have a new favorite team and buy a Wentz jersey and this and that.

"It's really cool to know that I can hopefully bring more attention to this state, because I think it's an awesome place."

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein

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