On March 12, temperatures were just above freezing in Fargo, North Dakota. Not bad for one of the coldest cities in America. But even if a blizzard was unfolding (not uncommon until May, in these parts), dozens of NFL decision-makers still would've descended upon the Midwestern town. Thirty of the league's 32 teams were represented at the Fargodome that day, storming what amounts to a regional temple -- the deafening home of the North Dakota State Bison -- for something special: The chance to lay eyes on one of the most unusually tantalizing quarterback prospects in years.
Draft season tends to evoke hyperbole. Top talents become "generational." Strong position groups become "historically deep." By the following April, plenty of pundits have already moved on, eager to be the first to crown the next big thing. But it's not often you see what those 30 teams saw in Fargo. It's not often a QB is a lock to go in the first round (perhaps as high as No. 3 overall) and will only be 20 years old when he's picked, having played just 19 games in college, with just one career interception, for an FCS school. The rocket arm, top-end speed and prototypical 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame are just bonuses.
That's Trey Lance.
The big kid underneath
Lance is now the multimillion-dollar face of a billion-dollar franchise, the San Francisco 49ers. A week before his showcase at the NDSU pro day, he was engaged in much simpler matters: Wrestling his roommate.
Phoenix Sproles, a junior wide receiver for NDSU, has shared a Fargo apartment with the QB since the two arrived on campus in 2018. Sproles was one of Lance's top targets during the latter's last full season for the Bison. But off the field, they've been going at it for years, all the way up until Lance's Fargodome spectacle.
"We wrestle a lot," Sproles says, holding back a laugh. "I'm gonna admit, I haven't beaten him yet. But right before the pro day, I took it easy on him. I didn't wanna mess with him, you know? He's a big kid. He tries to give me -- he has this thing called the 'back breaker' -- where he tries to put my back on his knee and mess me up."
Sproles knows the NDSU coaches probably don't want to hear that. But it's indicative of their relationship, which also began on a competitive note.
"Junior year, you have all your Junior Day college visits," the receiver recalls, "and I kept seeing this dude at all the visits. I was the No. 3 or No. 4 athlete in Minnesota, and he was No. 2. I was comparing myself to him from the beginning; he was already a threat. I remember the first time I figured out who he was, I was at South Dakota State, and there was this tall, lengthy dude. I asked around, like, 'Who is that guy?' And someone was like, 'It's Trey Lance.' I made sure to size him up a little bit, make sure he knew I was present."
The rivalry was always out of respect. Lance became the first major recruit from that 2018 class to get an offer, committing to NDSU in hopes of becoming just the third Bison QB to ever be drafted. Two weeks later, Sproles joined him.
"I wanted Trey to be my quarterback," he says.
He ended up getting more. The two grew up in different areas -- Sproles in New Hope, a suburb of Minneapolis; and Lance in Marshall, the small southwestern Marshall town of under 14,000. But they bonded quickly, first over weekend hangouts and throwing sessions at Sproles' high school field, then over a grueling transition to college ball. It wasn't so much the awe of their new program that got them through. NDSU's powerhouse reputation, backed by a record eight Division I FCS championships in nine years, was undeniable. But Lance, with a work ethic that matched his goofiness, proved a more tangible resource for Sproles.
"They always say you wanna quit college football after summer of your freshman year," he says. "But we stuck together. We're for-lifers, that's what we say. I got him forever."
Plenty of people, see, are talking about Trey Lance these days. But they know him only as the big, strong, athletic mystery at the top of the 2021 draft. The 49ers' newest franchise QB. The latest hotshot from that school that produced Carson Wentz. The biggest boom-or-bust project of his class. The emerging celebrity at the center of a specific March afternoon in Fargo.
Talk to those in the small circle that's witnessed Lance's rare journey firsthand, however, and you get a clearer picture. That big kid, wrestling his teammate? The one trying to give his best friend a "back breaker?" The one who reverted to his "goofy freshman-year self" right after the pro day? That's also Trey Lance. It turns out he's every bit "just one of the guys" as a 20-year-old who isn't headlining ESPN and NFL Network -- maybe even more so. And that's what makes his march to stardom all the more unique.
With The First Pick Newsletter
With The First Pick Newsletter
Prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft with the day’s big stories + mock drafts, big board updates and more.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
The road to QB
Jake Hess first met Trey Lance when he was about 4 years old. They were teammates in tee ball. They were classmates at the same Catholic school, Holy Redeemer, in Marshall. And their friendship also blossomed from competition.
"Recess at Holy Redeemer, we were always the two captains," says Hess, now a junior at Minnesota State University, Mankato. "And we were always the two best players, so we were never on the same team. Never."
This, of course, naturally led to some standoffs.
"Sometimes it got to the point we'd have to have family sit-downs," Hess continues. "Elementary school, we would take the bus back to Trey's house almost every day to play two-hand touch in the backyard. And it got heated sometimes. One time, he yelled at me for shoving someone, and then I threw the ball so hard at the guy the next play, he was like, 'Go home.' So I went home."
They ended up doing everything together. Football. Basketball. Snowboarding trips. Sleepovers. Twins games. Sunday church. Visits to the Valleyfair amusement park, with Trey's younger brother, Bryce, tagging along.
The twist, when it came to Trey, was that he always went the extra mile. Not content to just join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, he became a local leader and regional spokesman for the sports ministry. Hess, who also volunteered for FCA, recalls being particularly moved when Lance gave his testimony at a middle-school camp in Iowa, where they roomed together. Eventually, after Hess moved to one of Marshall's public schools, he and Trey "built a bridge between us and the Holy Redeemer kids."
And don't even get him started on athletics.
"As kids, it wasn't Xbox with Trey," Hess says. "It was Wii Fit. Or playing outside. He'd be in there, at school, lifting weights after basketball games, and I'm just gassed, laying in the locker room wanting to go drink a freaking milkshake."
Turns out Lance had some integral motivators at home. His mother, Angie; and father, Carlton, brought a model work ethic to the community long before anyone outside of Marshall knew their son's name. A former teacher, Angie has spent more than a decade at Schwan's Company, the locally famous meal delivery business. Carlton, meanwhile, served as Marshall's head middle-school football coach when Trey was young. Before that, he was a two-sport standout at Division II Southwest Minnesota State, played briefly in the Canadian Football League and attended training camp with the 49ers and Houston Oilers.
Not surprisingly, Dad accelerated Trey's foray into quarterbacking. When he taught his son to throw in the backyard, he did so through the lens of a professional defensive back. When the Marshall Tigers needed a backup QB during Lance's eighth-grade season, everyone pointed to Hess, but Carlton told Trey he was going to try it, too.
"We always thought he'd be a running back," says Terry Bahlmann, Marshall's high school coach for more than 30 years. "But in terms of athletes I had over the years, he'll go right to the top. He played strong safety for us, returned punts, returned kicks. I remember his freshman year, I told my wife, Jan, he was a special athlete. I just didn't know what he was gonna do yet."
Hess and Lance, the rivals-turned-friends, started by trading possessions in practice. ("I was the guy with the arm," Hess says, "but he could run.") As Hess gradually poured more into baseball, where both QBs were also captains, Lance started attending passing camps.
Then, in 10th grade, it happened. Eight games into the season, Marshall's senior QB suffered a serious injury, and Hess was already tending to a high-ankle sprain. So Bahlmann called on Lance, just a JV project at that point. Trey was much smaller then -- about 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds -- and threw a couple interceptions in defeat. But it was the last time he and the Tigers lost for a long time. Marshall went to three straight state tournaments under Lance's direction, and suddenly the spotlight was bright.
Built for the NFL
Not everyone bought into the hype. Coaches and scouts started showing up in Marshall, only to be treated to run-heavy offense more than Trey Lance clinics. Only one Power Five school made him an offer, and that was to play linebacker. As NFL Network's Chase Goodbread reported, there was also Lance's brush with the University of Minnesota. He'd grown up a Golden Gophers fan, attended a Gophers summer camp and negotiated his own unofficial visit with coach P.J. Fleck. But Fleck only saw him as a safety, and recruiting services almost instantly followed suit, reclassifying Lance as an "athlete" rather than a QB.
No matter. After sniffs from Air Force, Boise State and a few others, Lance became a Bison and unleashed the best marks of any NDSU QB amid an era of unprecedented production for the program's signal-callers. Brock Jensen (2009-2013) earned a camp invite from the Dolphins after throwing 34 touchdowns as a senior, Carson Wentz (2012-2015) went No. 2 overall to the Eagles after starring as a dual threat, and Easton Stick (2015-2018) was drafted by the Chargers after scoring 85 times his final two seasons.
Lance outdid them all as a 19-year-old redshirt freshman, totaling a school-record 3,886 yards (2,786 passing; 1,100 rushing) while guiding the Bison to a national title and college football's first 16-0 record since Yale went unbeaten in 1894.
"Everybody thinks he's a runner, but he's really got a strong arm, too," says Bahlmann. "I honestly think he's got a lot of Patrick Mahomes' skills."
The comps are all over the board: Hess sees a more accurate version of Cam Newton. Phoenix Sproles has heard the Wentz connection because of NDSU, but thinks Lance is a "more dynamic starter and smarter with the ball." Either way, the ceiling is high. And the scouts agree, even though Lance only played one more game before declaring for the draft. (The COVID-19 pandemic delayed all but one matchup from the 2020-21 season until this spring.)
Clemson's Trevor Lawrence boasts all the intangibles as the No. 1 pick, BYU's Zach Wilson was a top-three lock for his off-schedule play-making, and Ohio State's Justin Fields was another top-five possibility with a big arm and elite speed. Lance, however, has drawn physical comparisons to former Colts No. 1 pick Andrew Luck.
"To me, he's still little 'Treybee,' with the little baby face. That's what we'd call him," says Hess. "Once he got to college, though, he was a big shot right away." Literally, too: "I got to one NDSU game, and afterward, I was like, 'Holy s***, he's big.' In high school, he was just little. Now he's built like a brick house."
In 2017, before any of the top rookie QBs even set foot on a college field, Lance, Lawrence and Fields competed at the same Elite 11 youth QB camp in Chicago. Also there: Quincy Patterson II, who transferred to NDSU from Virginia Tech this year and could succeed Lance next fall. Patterson remembers meeting Lance at the camp: Both were pretty shy, he says, but clicked when Trey showed his goofy side after running the 40-yard dash. Now, having consulted Lance and studied the QB's NDSU tape before his relocation to Fargo, he looks up to Trey's game.
"He's super smooth, he's got that swag about him and can really move," Patterson says. "I loved how Trey also really had control over the offense and made almost every decision himself. Not a lot of teams or offenses have that, and it helps with going to the NFL because quarterbacks are true field generals in the NFL. I believe Trey would have done the same things even at a higher level just because of how much he cared and how hard he worked."
Built to lead
The one thing about rookie QBs that you cannot evaluate is how they'll respond to the NFL lifestyle. For every home-run QB pick near the top of the draft, there are three times as many misses. Rarely is that because of a lack of talent. The circumstances may not be ideal -- poor coaches, bad injury luck, shoddy supporting casts. Often, however, it's the sheer pressure of commanding the big stage.
Take it from Mark Sanchez, who endured firsthand the highs and lows of the limelight after going No. 5 to the Jets in 2009: "You're a 21- or 22-year-old kid, and people expect you to make executive decisions like you're a 65-year-old Supreme Court judge. And ... that's not realistic every time. They're going to go out with friends, they're going to go out to a bar, they're going to meet a girl. They're kids! They're like everyone else their age, except with the weight of the world on them."
It's no secret that Lance's transition from Midwestern folk hero to NFL quarterback will be the biggest of his life. A move ripe with the possibility of missteps. But those closest to him don't see him as sheltered or unprepared. Besides trailing the likes of Lawrence and Fields and Co. in national recognition, he is softer-spoken. He prefers to let his body do the talking, either with highlight-reel plays on the field or professions of faith off it. (His newest tattoo, just inked recently, has "Child of God" spread across his back.) Yet his peers point to the times he has leveraged his voice and platform as evidence of natural leadership.
When others transferred to NDSU, sometimes to challenge for his job, Lance would beat them out but somehow make them fans in the process. Consider Zeb Noland, who came over from Iowa State specifically to get more playing time. He ended up losing a competition with Lance for Easton Stick's No. 1 spot. Instead of transferring elsewhere, he stuck around because of a "special" bond with his new "best friend."
When neighboring Minnesota erupted last summer after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, died at the hands of Minneapolis police, Lance's words penetrated the mostly white communities that often hailed him on Saturdays. As the biracial son of a Black father and white mother, he sometimes stood out in his little town of Marshall, where Hess recalls he may have gotten occasional comments from visiting schools about being the only Black kid on the basketball team. Attaching his name to the Black Lives Matter movement and marching with teammates against police brutality was even more visible.
"Protests occurred, (and) he took part in them and (received) a ton of negative comments and hate," says Patterson, "but still stood tall and did what he felt was right despite what some of his 'supporters' had to say."
And when he returns to Marshall? He's bigger, stronger and, in Hess's words, "much cooler" than he was as a little kid. But he's not above the small town that shepherded his growth. He's just Trey Lance.
"It's a big deal in a town of 14,000," says Bahlmann. "His pro day, we had a couple hundred kids on their phones watching it throughout the building. I sat in the cafeteria with his brother, Bryce, watching him. But I'm most proud of Trey being Trey and still remembering who he is when he comes back. He has time for everybody here. My wife and I, we were doing a boys basketball game once, and we realized, if you wanna find where all the little kids are, you find Trey. Because they're all over him, sitting around him, trying to get a chance to talk to him."
Once a week last fall, Trey would get texts from Wentz, per NFL Network. The ex-Eagles and new Colts QB is a long-distance mentor of sorts, primarily because of their NDSU connection. Far be it from him to cling only to the stars of his future employer, Trey would also exchange weekly texts with someone else: Bahlmann.
The next steps
On April 29, the night Trey Lance heard his name called by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, he was in Cleveland, for the draft. Some of his crew was in Fargo. His parents originally booked a private banquet hall for the most exhilarating evening of their son's life. Even some of Trey's not-so-good friends will probably reach out now, eager to touch the fame that awaits. A couple of names were already locked into the invite list, though. They had been for a while: Jake Hess and Phoenix Sproles.
If Trey had his way, the gathering might've been in Marshall, where he and Jake once went head to head in the backyard. Some NFL teams want to fly out their draft picks as soon as they can after picking them, however. And everyone knew Trey would have a team that night.
Sproles, who had discussed the possibilities with Lance, says he used to follow whichever NFL team his cousin, longtime running back Darren Sproles, played for. For a while he rocked a Chargers jersey. Then he called himself part of the Saints' Who Dat Nation. Then he went all in on the Eagles. He's got a similar plan with Trey.
"He trained in Atlanta for a long time, and I know he loves Atlanta. He wouldn't mind being a Falcon, playing in that uniform. I could see him in either a Falcons or Panthers uniform," Sproles said before Lance landed in San Francisco. "Whatever it is, I'm buying two jerseys. Two different colors. And I want it signed, 'To my best friend Phoenix.' Then I need some gear. Some T-shirts. A jersey and a T-shirt, that's all I want."
Hess has similar plans: He would've loved it if his favorite team, the Steelers, somehow drafted his old buddy, but he's inclined to see Trey succeed regardless of location, and he's prepared to give his allegiance.
"He told me he'd like a good situation, ideally with a quarterback that's a great leader that he can watch and learn from," Hess says. "When it happens and he gets picked, I'm gonna be at the draft party like, 'Everybody shut up, I was his friend first.' I'll get his jersey right away and frame it."
Chances are, the town of Marshall will do the same. Back home, things are proceeding as normal. The spring flowers are growing. Students are gearing up for graduation. (Among them: Lance's brother who's already committed to NDSU as a wide receiver.) If Lance were in town, and no one knew any better, it'd be normal all the same. Because beneath the superstar-in-waiting is just another small-town kid who happens to be doing unusual things.
"In Marshall," Hess says, "you grow up, you go to college, you raise a family, and that's it. That's the motion. Trey was different. He's doing the things the third-grade teachers tell you will never happen: Making it to the NFL."
The best part: He's still Trey Lance.