NFL players have a pretty typical summer routine: Find a warm, comfortable locale and work out. The Seahawks have famously trekked to Hawaii in the past. You cannot drive three blocks in Miami in July without stumbling upon at least two NFL players working out (and posting it on Instagram). San Diego and Los Angeles are standard meeting spots, too.
And then there’s the Eagles. They went to Fargo, North Dakota, a destination as unlikely as it was effective. Players say it helped the offense jell in the summer months before the Eagles raced to an unexpected 13–3 record and the no. 1 seed in the NFC.
“My friends were saying, ‘Why are you going to North Dakota? There’s nothing there,’” said rookie wide receiver Shelton Gibson. “And I was saying ‘I know about North Dakota,’ and they said, ‘What do you know about it?’’And I said ‘OK, I don’t know anything.’”
“It was weird. I didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into,” Gibson said. “But I want to go back.”
The Eagles’ skill-position players gathered in Fargo last July. They’d made similar trips in 2016 and 2015 to San Diego (Sam Bradford also brought some teammates to his Oklahoma hometown in 2016), but they’d never done anything quite like the trek to North Dakota, which featured the vast majority of the pass catchers on the team. Fargo, of course, is the home base of quarterback Carson Wentz, an MVP candidate this season until he tore his ACL in December.
Aside from a type of bonding experience, these types of unofficial workouts are an effective football practice: The new collective bargaining agreement puts strict limits on training camp and practice time, and thus, trips like these to Fargo help the players build chemistry on their own time.
On Saturday, the Eagles play the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC divisional playoffs, and although they are the no. 1 seed, they’re not favored to win. This is because Nick Foles is the quarterback. But they’ll always have Fargo.
“I’ve seen these trips around the league. When I trained in Florida, you’d see teams down there,” said veteran receiver Torrey Smith, who signed with the team in March and ate at one eatery that served bison burgers five times. “Obviously, if you’re done with your work it’s nice to go kick it on the beach. But this was probably better than places where there is more to do. We’d probably be more likely to go out, do something like that. It was very personal. We were not surrounded by a lot of people. So we enjoyed each other’s company.”
“If we were in Miami, guys know people, everyone at night separates. In Fargo, it’s ‘Hey Carson, what are we supposed to do?’” said receiver Mack Hollins. “So everything we did was as a unit, as a team. I think that was big as far as relationships now.”
These days included workouts at North Dakota State, where Wentz played college ball and became a star, and lots of bison burgers, as well as, uh, some sightseeing.
“When I got off the flight, I remember the people I was on the flight with. We get off the flight and like two days later I saw a bunch of the same people walking around town. I’m like ‘This does not happen,’” said receiver Marcus Johnson. “When you go to other cities, major cities, you don’t ever see anyone. You could walk around most entire airports and never see any of those people again. I definitely saw the same faces again in Fargo. That was different.”
The people of Fargo were freaking out about the Eagles — and they still are.
Beth Hoole, the sports director at Valley News Live in Fargo, was waiting for the Eagles players to arrive at some point in July but did not know exactly which day they’d roll into town. She stayed glued to social media, “and it turned out that everyone in town was doing the same thing, because when they arrived there were lines of people waiting for them,” she said. Hoole saw the Eagles arrive at the airport via their Instagram stories, and on the first day of workouts, she saw Alshon Jeffery put a Periscope video in which then-Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews uttered the immortal words: “Ain’t no rap stations on the radio or nothing, baby. Straight bison burgers, country music and redheads. Shout-out to Carson Wentz.”
“I don’t want to make it seem like people in Fargo are like ‘aw, shucks,’ but with this they kind of were,” Hoole said. “Fans loved these workouts so much, it was ridiculous. They were cheering summer workouts. People are still talking about the workouts however many months later.”
Hoole said the Eagles have since become something of a phenomenon in Fargo. Nothing can touch North Dakota State football for attention in town, and to a lesser extent North Dakota hockey, but the Eagles are trying. The local sporting goods store, Hoole said, has more Eagles gear than anything. Fargo has pushed aside the Minnesota Vikings in favor of the Eagles, and the Philly love is not just directed toward Wentz — residents can be seen around town wearing jerseys of various players.
“The people still talk about who got to catch a glimpse of them at the restaurant, the guy who met them on the golf course,” she said. “They love it. They viewed it as touching greatness. Everyone here cannot wait to tell you their Carson Wentz story, which is always about how gracious he was.”
For a week over the summer, Eagles receivers learned two things: (1) Carson Wentz is good at pretty much everything, and (2) He’s basically a god in North Dakota.
“Fargo loves bison and they love Carson,” Hollins said. “The thing about Carson in Fargo is that he’s the only [6-foot-5] redheaded guy so they can spot him from a distance.”
For Gibson, he said he and his fellow rookies bonded in a small hotel room that they split — with more players than beds. Gibson, Greg Ward, and Hollins slept in one room: “It was a switch-off thing, one of us would sleep on the windowsill. That’s how we spent the week.”
The rookies didn’t have a car, either.
“[Wentz] picked us up every morning in his pickup truck — 7 a.m. every morning,” Gibson said. “He was showing us what type of person he was. He could have easily said, ‘Rooks catch an Uber,’ but he must have woken up at 6 to get there for us.”
They also learned that Wentz was an incredibly well-rounded athlete. He dominated his receivers in golf (“Many, many people were laughing at us on the course,” said Smith) and he was by far the most proficient on the paddleboard. “No one could get up on the board,” Gibson said, “and Wentz just had both his dogs on there and was great at it.”
After the daily workouts, on most days all the players went to a lake house owned by one of Wentz’s friends.
“I don’t think people realize how much those trips build chemistry, build trust among players,” Johnson said.
The skill-position players credit that chemistry with the hot start that led the Eagles to the 1-seed despite Wentz’s devastating injury. Will they go back again next year?
“It was cool. I feel like we covered all of it that there is to see,” Johnson said. “Maybe next year, someone else’s hometown.”
“Look,” Hollins said. “If Carson asks me to go anywhere, I’ll go.”