The Forum's 2017 Area Person of the Year: Carson Wentz
FARGO—In some ways, The Forum's 2017 Area Person of the Year Carson Wentz no longer belongs to North Dakota. He is a national star, with superstardom only an inch or two away. Television networks use his image to promote upcoming NFL games involving his team, the Philadelphia Eagles. A knee injury that ended his season was the lead sports story across the country, as it would have been for Tom Brady or Brett Favre or John Elway.
But in some ways, Wentz is still all about North Dakota. He returned to the state to launch his faith-based foundation, shortly after hosting some Eagles teammates in Fargo. And the Dutch Destroyer story, man, that's what we like to think are pure North Dakota values.
Plus, he's North Dakota Tough. That's what TV analyst Jon Gruden dubbed Wentz, starting a Twitter trend.
It is those qualities—Wentz's accomplishments on and off the field, and his impact nationally and locally—that led the newspaper to name him our top newsmaker.
Wentz is, as the marketing gurus say these days, a brand. There is an image to cultivate and protect. The demands on his time are never-ending, the focus on whatever move he makes or words he says is intense. The young man who went quietly from Bismarck Century High School to North Dakota State—and had to sit for three years before becoming the starting quarterback for the Bison's Football Championship Subdivision program—has climbed near the the pinnacle of professional sports in his second NFL season.
He was named a starting quarterback in the Pro Bowl, the league's all-star game, even though the torn knee ligament Wentz suffered Sunday, Dec. 10, in a game against the Los Angeles Rams will prevent him from playing. Wentz received 829,174 votes from fans, fourth-most among all NFL players, in gaining that honor. The population of North Dakota is about 758,000.
Some other numbers attest to his nationwide popularity.
According to Fanatics, the top company for licensed sports merchandise and operator of NFLShop.com and the Eagles online store, Wentz is the No. 1 selling NFL player this season (Brady, the New England quarterback, is the top-seller since the beginning of 2017). Since the start of the season, 180 different Wentz products have been sold across the Fanatics' network of sites.
The top markets for Wentz merchandise this season? Fargo and North Dakota need not apply. The top five cities are Philadelphia, New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Harrisburg, Pa. The top five states are Pennsylvania, New Jersey, California, Texas and Florida.
When Wentz posted a video on the social media platform Twitter to his 642,000 followers, it was viewed 2.87 million times. His 611,000 Instagram followers watched the same video 1.87 million times. The video was viewed 3.8 million times on Facebook.
He is a phenomenon, as will happen when you're in the discussion for being the NFL's most valuable player. And if Wentz returns to pre-injury form in 2018 and beyond, he's only going to get bigger.
Through an Eagles spokesman, Wentz declined to be interviewed for this story.
Yet when it came time to announce the formation of his Carson Wentz AO1 Foundation, Wentz did it in July before Fargo media at Oxbow Country Club. AO1 stands for Audience of One, a symbol Wentz has tattooed on his wrist signifying he lives his life only for Christ. The foundation's mission is "to demonstrate the love of God by providing opportunities and support for those less fortunate and those in need."
Wentz aims to help underprivileged kids overseas, to provide hunting and outdoors opportunities for underserved children in the Midwest and to provide service dogs for youths in the Philadelphia area.
And then there is the story of the Dutch Destroyer, which launched Wentz's popularity into the stratosphere and introduced the nation to a version of North Dakota Nice that had grown men crying. ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi did the story that was aired in late October.
Lukas Kusters was a Wilmington, Del., boy battling cancer whose nickname was the Dutch Destroyer. After a radiation technician told the Eagles of Lukas' story, the team sent some gear to the 9-year-old along with a video message from his favorite player—Wentz.
So began a special relationship between the cancer-stricken boy and his hero. When doctors told Lukas' family he did not have long to live, his wish was to meet Wentz and thank the quarterback for sending the video.
In May, Lukas and his family visited the Eagles practice facility and got the grand tour from Wentz. That was when the boy gave Wentz a gray and green rubber wristband with the words "Dutch Destroyer" on it. Wentz wears it for motivation, even during games.
Lukas died June 12, four days after his 10th birthday and two weeks after his visit with Wentz and the Eagles. His family buried Lukas in a Wentz No. 11 jersey, which they told the quarterback about at training camp. Wentz broke down recalling the story with Rinaldi.
"It's so much deeper than football is what it comes down to. It's so much more than just a game. Impactful. Meaningful. Powerful," Wentz told Rinaldi. "And just another reminder for me that it is more than a game, that it is an opportunity to do good. Whatever that is, whatever that looks like, and to just be authentic and genuine with people."
What's the cliche? You can take the kid out of North Dakota, but you can't take North Dakota out of the kid. As one of the most popular athletes in the country, Carson Wentz belongs to all sports fans now. The numbers prove that. But there's still enough North Dakota in Wentz that his home state can still lay claim to him, too.
Past Person of the Year winners
The Forum's Area Person of the Year recognizes someone who sparked changes and discussion that most influenced our area in the past year. The Forum's selections are made by editors. The following are past Person of the Year winners:
2016: Doug Burgum, the tech mogul, real estate developer and millionaire philanthropist, because he was elected as North Dakota's governor in his first run for public office.
2015: Jessica Thomasson, CEO of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, because she serves as a lightning rod for criticism of refugee resettlement and leads an agency with great impact on the region.
2014: Sherrie Skuza, widow of Fargo police Lt. Jeff Skuza, whose criticism of the internal investigation of her late husband sparked changes in the department.
2013: Craig Bohl, former North Dakota State University football coach, for leading the team to multiple national titles and bringing national exposure to NDSU.
2012: U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp for her election as North Dakota's first female U.S. senator.
2011: David Berg, American Crystal Sugar CEO, as a main driving force behind a prolonged lockout of sugar workers, personified labor struggles here and elsewhere.
2010: Denny Sanford, whose wealth and vision played major roles in shaping what used to be Fargo MeritCare Medical Center into the region's largest hospital system.
2009: Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker for helping lead the flood fight.
2008: Fargo-Moorhead youths for their many volunteer efforts to better the community.
2007: Tracy Briggs, former WDAY radio personality, for organizing World War II Honor Flights.
2006: Joseph Chapman, then president of North Dakota State University, for leading the school to a higher profile.