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Bond between Wentz, Eagles fans nourished by mutual adoration

PHILADELPHIA -- They came despite the rain, the late notice and the start of a holiday weekend that pulls so many city residents to the Jersey Shore for their last chance to dig their toes into the sand before the unofficial end of summer.

It was last Friday, the kickoff event for "Thy Kingdom Crumb,"Carson Wentz's AO1 Foundation's food truck that will distribute free meals all over the Philadelphia area, and the location had just been announced about an hour ago.

Still, the line in the Acme Markets parking lot was more than 100 people long at the start. Though it thinned a bit as the two hours went along, it never let up. They wanted their pulled BBQ chicken and wasabi shrimp pasta salad. But mostly, they wanted the chance to meet the young man who was handing it to them, to tell him how much they appreciate everything he's done.

"You're the real MVP," one particularly bold Eagles fan told Wentz, as the fan recorded the moment on his cell phone.

The man then added a rather colorful remark about Tom Brady, and Wentz just politely smiled and lowered his head, grateful for the sentiments while also not wanting to endorse the man's assessment of Brady -- certainly not while being videoed.

This is a passionate fan base. You might have heard about that. And when they got the chance to meet their franchise quarterback, well, some of them still thought they were on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the middle of the Super Bowl parade.

There were yelps. There were screams. And about an hour in, there was finally a "E-A-G-L-E-S" chant. All the while, Wentz dished out the food, reached his hand out of the food truck window to greet the patrons and smiled for the camera.

He was healing. Not in his knee. But somewhere deep down.

"In these moments, when you're injured, you can often feel isolated, but Carson did the opposite. He engaged with the community even deeper," said Kyle Horner, who serves as pastor, along with his wife Danielle, of The Connect Church in Cherry Hill, N.J., where Wentz and several other teammates worship. "All of these things were already planned. This isn't anything other than what he was going to do and who he is. But I feel there's another aspect of him being able to connect with the community and the community back through him. He's authentic. He's real. That's what they're looking for. People are drawn to authenticity.

"So during this time, being able to do those things certainly was a blessing to him and the community."

The past 12 months have brought with them some of the highest and lowest moments of Wentz's life.

In his second NFL season, the former No. 2 overall pick made an incredible leap in performance, putting him at the top of many MVP lists by the time the Eagles traveled to Los Angeles to face the Rams on Dec. 10. But as he dove into the end zone for a touchdown that would be negated by a holding penalty, Wentz tore his ACL and LCL. Four plays later, he limped to the locker room, knowing his season was likely over.

Everything that followed that game -- Nick Foles' solid play the next week in a win over the Giants and his sensational postseason through the upset of the Patriots in Super Bowl LII -- combined both highs and lows for Wentz. He was ecstatic about what his teammates had accomplished and knew they wouldn't have done it without him, but he openly acknowledged how tough it was to watch instead of participating and leading the way himself.

Wentz also got engaged in February to Maddie Oberg, whom he met the previous offseason on a mission trip to Haiti. The wedding was in July, and it occurred in the middle of a grueling rehab he hoped would end with him back on the field for Thursday night's game against the Falcons -- hopes that were dashed when Doug Pederson officially announced Foles as the Week 1 starter earlier this week.

Another disappointment he had to overcome. Another reason to feel isolated. Another excuse if he wanted to duck and cover.

Yet, Wentz hasn't done that. He had plans to expand his charitable endeavors this offseason, and he was going to follow through on them. He announced he would play a charity softball game in June at the Phillies' Citizens Bank Park, and that night, he dropped the news that the food truck would soon be making its rounds.

Attendance for the game: More than 25,000. Money raised: Over $850,000, plus a $520,000 check he presented that night to Mission of Hope: Haiti for the construction of a sports complex.

Isolated? Hardly. Alone? Nope.

Embraced, is more like it. Despite the fact that another quarterback lifted the Lombardi Trophy, this fan base is still devoted to Wentz. Some longtime Eagles fans were actually conflicted heading into the Super Bowl because they wanted their team to finally win one, yet they didn't want to do it without Wentz.

In two years, he had captured this town the way other star athletes -- Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb, Mike Schmidt and Charles Barkley, to name a few -- never did over the course of their careers. Some of those relationships were contentious at times. With Wentz, a young man from North Dakota, of all places, it's been nothing but love.

"I think the biggest thing is the blue-collar work ethic. That's what the fans love, that's what this city is kind of built on and founded on," Wentz said while seated on the back of the food truck, taking a break from handing out food as onlookers snapped pictures and videos. "When fans see that in players, it resonates with them, and they buy in. That's how I was raised, that's how Zach (Ertz) is and a lot of other guys, as well. They're going to work their tails off and do everything we can to provide wins for the city, and we love doing it."

It's more than that, though. There's something about Wentz that allowed him to immediately pass the Philly fans' smell test in ways other talented and hard-working athletes didn't.

Ertz, who showed up on the truck's opening night to help Wentz hand out food because that's what close friends do, believes it has to do with Wentz's authenticity in his leadership. It's something that won over a locker room of veterans almost immediately when Wentz arrived.

The young rookie had a strut, and the players noticed. It wasn't cockiness. It was confidence in himself, but also in them.

"Whenever you see somebody score, you see him unbuckle his chin strap and sprint 50 yards down the field. I think people ultimately gravitate toward that," Ertz said. "And he's a quarterback with very high expectations. People wanted someone where they could be like, 'That's our guy for the next 15 years.' That's something we didn't have in this city, at least in my time here."

That's part of what happened this offseason. The fans appreciate what Foles has done and they hope will continue do for them while Wentz continues his rehab. But they believe they have a long future of Wentz leading the team to great heights. So when he needed them, they lifted him, whether via their attendance at his softball game or even a passionate greeting when he's out at a restaurant.

It might sound hokey, but it's also true.

"Every time you go anywhere in Philly, people are just going crazy," Wentz said. "I play for the Lord, I play for my family and everything, but playing for these fans is real special, and there's nothing quite like running out of that tunnel."

Ertz knows how much it's going to sting for Wentz to run out of the tunnel on Thursday without a jersey on his back. He saw the disappointment in his friend's eyes last postseason. Wentz said in a recent interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer he prayed in the postgame locker room at the Super Bowl for the strength to resist any feelings of jealousy.

Those prayers eased his mind, as did his confiding in his teammates he was struggling at times.

"In today's society, a lot of males think you have to be strong all the time, and you're not allowed to show weakness. That's just so false," Ertz said. "In the sport of football, in life, we're able to be vulnerable with each other, we're able to hold each other accountable and just lean on one another and pray for each other. His foundation of his faith kept him level-headed, and he kept that perspective no matter what he was going through.

"He was just as bold in his faith when he was hurt as he was when he was an MVP candidate, and that shows the type of person he is."

Wentz has been outspoken about his faith, something that is often met with pushback from a portion of the public. But it's different in Wentz's case. Just by sampling the replies to some of his tweets and Instagram posts, one can see even some non-believers appreciate Wentz's resoluteness.

"I dont agree with religion but i respect everyone's beliefs ... gotta tell you @cj_wentz you set a very positive example behind your faith," one Twitter follower wrote. "and besides you being my qb1, i respect you so much more for that ... keep projecting positivity in this bleak world!!! #FlyEaglesFly"

Ertz credits Wentz's faith with helping the QB get through a trying offseason. He also believes Wentz's marriage to Maddie was a huge factor. Ertz, who is married to pro soccer player Julie Johnston Ertz, said Maddie has helped keep her husband grounded.

"There are times in all of our lives when we look internally and when you have a great woman there by your side who says, 'Hey, everything is going to be all right,' but at the same time, 'You need to be able to pick yourself up,' " Ertz said. "It's not just about Carson now. It's about the Wentz family marriage, and he's lucky to have a woman like her."

Horner, who envisioned a food truck distributing free meals years ago and now has seen that plan come to life via Wentz, said Wentz has a similarly unselfish attitude toward the community. For every softball game and food-truck unveiling that draws cameras, Horner said there are countless other hospital visits and charitable acts from Wentz that go unnoticed.

"In a world of, 'This is my brand, I need to get mine,' Carson is standing up and doing something completely different," Horner said. "He's putting team first, others first, and he is willing to work hard to make sure everyone benefits in his life. That speaks to Philadelphia."

Which is why Ertz can't wait for the next time Wentz runs out of the tunnel with that No. 11 jersey on his back.

"When the offense gets introduced and he comes out last, the whole stadium is going to be louder than I've ever heard it. Probably louder than when the banner is unveiled Thursday night," Ertz said. "That's how much people care about Carson."

Follow Mike Garafolo on Twitter @MikeGarafolo.

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