Carson Wentz was burdened and in pain. Here's how he left that behind

PHILADELPHIA -- To purge the angst that had stacked up inside him for months, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz turned to his pastor and unloaded.

It was December 2018 and Wentz had just learned he had a stress fracture in his back that threatened to end his season. He was searching for answers -- attempting to regain control and stay in control -- before he finally conceded the load was too great. So he loosened his white-knuckled grip and slowly started to let the weight slide away.

In a one-on-one conversation with the pastor, whom Wentz considers a spiritual mentor and close family friend, he let everything out. The anxiety accumulated from dealing with the injury, which surfaced earlier and bothered him more than he had been previously known. The disappointment over a lack of team success in 2018 under his stewardship. The frustration after being hurt for a second consecutive season. All of it.

"I don't want to say that I was in a negative light, but I just sometimes let the stress get to me," Wentz says now. "After I had those chances to get some things off my chest after the injury and everything that had compounded, it was kind of freeing for me.

"It allowed me to refocus my reason why I play this game, and making sure that I was still acting and living out the way I talked about. It allowed me to just release some things and have a change of attitude going forward."

The transformation has been easy to spot. On reporting day at Eagles training camp in July, the office door on the first floor of the NovaCare Complex swings open to reveal Wentz, wearing a dark gray North Dakota State T-shirt, shorts and a backward trucker hat, lounging in a black leather chair and sneaking in one last bite from his to-go box during a small window of downtime. His schedule is packed, but Wentz is at ease, a state in which the public had not seen him for the past year and a half.

There is also less of him. Wentz is noticeably leaner, the result of a complete overhaul to his training regimen. He hired a nutritionist who put him on a gluten-free diet. An avid hunter and hearty North Dakotan, Wentz even stopped eating beef for two months.

Lighter and out of the bulky knee brace he wore after his ACL tear, Wentz is more agile and fluid on the field -- his body language closer to a kid at recess than a grad student cramming for a final.

With his mental and physical load relieved, Wentz, 26, begins Year 4 rejuvenated, with the added peace of mind that comes with a four-year, $128 million extension secured this spring. He has made it through the woods. And yet the shadows cast over his career -- by injury, critical comments from anonymous teammates, and his former backup turned Super Bowl hero, Nick Foles -- are never far from view.

Late in 2017, word leaked out of the training room about a moment between Wentz and veteran running back Darren Sproles.

It was shortly after Wentz, in the middle of an MVP campaign, was lost for the season with a knee injury. It was a hard crash back down to Earth for the then-24-year-old, and it showed in the way he was carrying himself initially.

The scene unfolded on the treatment tables inside the training room, according to one source. The normally quiet Sproles, who was rehabbing from an ACL tear of his own, felt compelled to deliver a message to Wentz: Lift your chin up and put your focus on the team.

After all, there was still a championship on the line and a backup quarterback who needed support.

The exchange was described as non-adversarial by one witness, but it was tense enough to make people take notice and check on the players afterward.

"We actually helped each other in that time. We both wanted to be out there; we couldn't. But I had seen him down. So we had a good talk," Sproles says now, confirming a tough-love moment. "Because he was young and I didn't want to see him down. I didn't want to see that mess with him. I wanted to see him up, so I just felt like that was my time to get his spirits back up."

Wentz doesn't recall that moment specifically, but says it's "natural to feel sorry for yourself when you're injured," that he believes he "got over that pretty good" -- in fact, the encouragement he received from Sproles and the rest of the players with whom he was rehabbing was key.

Wentz compartmentalized his disappointment and went on to embrace the role of being Foles' wingman. Wentz was so dedicated that he transferred whatever rehab he could from the trainers' room to the quarterback room -- his left leg fitted with portable modalities and compression devices so he could attend the early-morning meetings. He fought the medical staff to let him be on the sideline on game days, even though he was still on crutches. Eventually, they relented, under the following conditions: stay behind the ball, and if there's a turnover, get back to the bench.

"That knucklehead would be out there in the huddle [if they let him]," one source joked.

A few months later, Wentz wore a smile as he stood face-to-face with Foles on the podium at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, both their hands gripping the Vince Lombardi Trophy as green and white confetti fell around them. Wentz affectionately had his other hand on Foles' championship baseball cap, gently pushing the lid down like a proud brother.

When he got back to the locker room, Wentz sat in front of his stall, buried his head in his knees, and prayed for the strength to fight against any jealousy he might feel toward his teammates. He rose a moment later, wiped his face and continued celebrating.

He spent the next six months rigorously rehabbing, desperate to regain his place with the team and climb back to that championship moment.

And then it happened again.

Wentz wasn't listed on the injury report for a back ailment during the 2018 season until Oct. 17. But ESPN learned this offseason that Wentz's back began bothering him multiple games before that designation, and it affected him more than he has generally let on.

His discomfort was apparent as early as an Oct. 7 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings, his third game back from the ACL tear.

"Dude, I can't sit," said Wentz, according to a source.

"Why not?" his teammate asked.

"My back," Wentz said.

Wentz played the next Thursday against the Giants. Working on a short week, he was listed as a limited participant with a "not injury-related-rest" designation that Tuesday. Otherwise practicing in full, and not considered to be hindered by the injury, he was not placed on the report with a "back" designation until the 17th.

Even after he joined the injury list with a back ailment, it was another two-plus months -- despite regular testing, and during which Wentz completed 70% of his throws with 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 11 games -- before the stress fracture revealed itself on a scan, compelling the team to shut Wentz down for the season.

"Were there things throughout the season -- soreness and stuff? Absolutely. There's no denying some of that," Wentz says. "But there was never, like, 'Hey, we found out early in the year his back is broken and he's played through it. They screwed up.' No, that was never the case. No, when they found it, we shut it down.

"Looking back, there's really nothing I'd do differently throughout the process other than just finding ways to cope with stress."

Most teammates understood Wentz's complicated mental space. He had had an MVP run cut short, then had to watch as his backup delivered Philadelphia its first Super Bowl. It only added pressure on top of the megatons that Wentz -- described as a perfectionist by those close to him -- was already putting on himself. Plenty of NFL players could relate to the feeling of isolation that comes with being physically separated from most of your teammates during the rehab process, during which you're around the action but not in it. Wentz was pressing to regain command and playing hurt. The combination of all of that, coupled with the team's success under Foles for a second straight season, made it difficult for Wentz to functionat his normal levels in the locker room and on the field.

Others read his struggles differently and offered a harsh assessment -- anonymous voices in a PhillyVoice article labeled Wentz as "selfish," "uncompromising" and "egotistical," while charging the quarterback with "bullying" offensive coordinator Mike Groh and playing favorites by overtargeting tight end Zach Ertz. Many teammates rushed to his defense, and Wentz refuted several details in the piece -- while also acknowledging he could have been a better teammate at times.

"Initially I'm like trying to figure out who could it have been. In your mind, you play detective. But then you're like, 'Does it really matter?'" Wentz said in February. "I'll learn from it and we'll all learn that (A) things shouldn't kind of come out the way it did, and (B) the pieces that I can learn from it and be a better teammate and player and all that stuff I will grow from. But other than that, just turn the page."

In March, Eagles coach Doug Pederson told Wentz he could take the next step as a leader by being a little more "vulnerable" and "accessible." He cited two quarterbacks with whom he had shared a locker room, Brett Favre and Dan Marino, and how they thrived when they reached across the aisle to lead the entire team.

And so, this offseason, the quarterback once described by a staffer as a "ghost" in the facility -- because he was always there but holed up grinding game tape -- has become more engaged.

Veterans have noticed that he's making an effort to establish a bond not only with the regular contributors on offense, but everyone on the Eagles' depth chart. On the practice field during warm-ups, Wentz stops to chat up a couple of defensive backs at the bottom of the roster before jumping in line. He had groups of offensive and defensive players over to his house for a barbecue this summer. He took his offensive linemen out to dinner, knowing the best way to endear himself to the men up front. He brought his receivers out to his Texas home to bond and work out for the week.

"We spent a lot of time back in the spring and obviously in the summertime just trying to get together, connect, working out and just bonding off the field," receiver DeSean Jackson says. "We spend so much time here, but as long as you can get off the field sometimes and not have the playbook involved and just having conversations about life in general just to kind of build [that bond] -- he does that, too."

Wentz has made gestures like this in the past, but he's casting a wider net and connecting on a more personal level now. This development, he says, wasn't prompted by one thing but rather happened organically as he continues to grow in his role.

"Carson is a leader of this football team, and what I've seen from him has just been excellence on and off the field," Pederson says. "The way he prepares, how he's engaging with more and more people on the team. It's something that takes time.

"He's maturing now, going into his fourth year, and he's embraced that."

Every time Wentz walks off the practice field and heads to the locker room, he passes through a corridor where a life-size image of Foles stares back at him from the wall, part of a tribute to the Super Bowl championship of which Foles was named MVP. Down the street at Lincoln Financial Field, there is a giant bronze statue of his former backup awaiting him.

He doesn't talk about it much, but safety Malcolm Jenkins acknowledges the circumstances would be a lot for anyone to deal with -- that as a competitor, he knows Foles' success "has to have some kind of effect on you."

Only a title run of Wentz's own will provide proper balance.

"Anybody that's following up what Nick Foles did has got something to prove. He went and took us to the Super Bowl," Eagles left tackle Jason Peters says. "Me and [Wentz] and everybody else that missed the Super Bowl and didn't play in it, we've still got something to prove. Unfinished business."

With Foles' presence still looming large (literally) over the Eagles facility, his offseason departure for Jacksonville might be a healthy development as Wentz works to solidify himself as the team's north star.

Not that Wentz would say that -- in fact, he evoked Foles' name unprompted when talking about the ways he has changed entering Year 4.

"This offseason for me, getting healthy was big, but just the mental approach to the game and keeping it simple," Wentz says. "And there's some things that I've learned from Nick and his approach to the game. He was just so easygoing with stuff, and for me, I was always probably the opposite -- uptight and just Type A. And there's good and bad to both, and just finding that balance I think, and just keeping life in perspective."

The biggest breakthrough Wentz had, through his outpouring to his pastor in December and the conversations with his wife, Maddie, that followed, was "learning to surrender the control."

He stopped trying to play doctor in his dogged quest to get back onto the field late last season and relented to the medical advice of experts. He hired trainers to tailor a workout regimen for him that replaced his "high school/college mindset of just lift, lift, lift, work hard, work hard" with an approach that focuses on mobility, flexibility and range of motion, all of which are designed to aid in injury prevention. And he brought on a nutritionist to shape his diet.

"I've been to a few vegan restaurants now and every time I do I feel very weird," Wentz says. "I literally have an outdoor show where we hunt and we eat. I feel weird, like I'm almost leaving my man card at the door, but there is some great vegan food.

"For me, it was taking all of the guesswork out. It was taking all of the stress off of me that I didn't have to [have]."

Back on the field, Wentz has a lighter air about him. After a touchdown pass during practice last week, he and Sproles ran up to each other and did a leaping side bump, joking as they made their way back to the rest of the team. The summer has been filled with those kind of moments, more so than in any other offseason since Wentz joined the NFL.

"All I can tell you is this: Carson is operating really well," Groh says. "He's free of mind, body and heart right now, and he's a leader of our team."

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