Fargo

The field at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, still had remnants of snow, the result of a Saturday morning weather system that included sleet and rain. It was cloudy and cold.

On a second-and-9 play, North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance went back to pass, only to be under heavy pressure. So he took off running up the middle, pounding square into a James Madison middle linebacker at the 50-yard line.

Lance didn’t go down, instead taking a rugby-scrum of players including eight of his teammates another 12 yards.

“If there’s one play that is the epitome of our program, that would be it,” Lance said this week.

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North Dakota State's quarterback Trey Lance acknowledges the crowd after the win over James Madison during the NCAA FCS championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020.     David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota State's quarterback Trey Lance acknowledges the crowd after the win over James Madison during the NCAA FCS championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. David Samson / The Forum

That one play epitomized this year in sports, a scrum of COVID-19 postponements and cancellations. And through it all, Lance fought his way through it, survived and thrived.

For his Superman-like performance in last January's Division I FCS national championship game, which helped NDSU win an eighth title in nine years, his subsequent rise to the top of the NFL mock draft boards, his off-the-field leadership for social justice and declaring early for the NFL Draft after the Bison defeated Central Arkansas in October, Lance has been named The Forum’s Sportsperson of the Year.

“It’s about keeping God first and controlling what I can control,” Lance said. “If I do those two things, I know I’m going to be alright. There’s not a whole lot I can do about what people say about me; just try to put my best foot forward, give everyone a great first impression and treat people the right way as everyone should.”

In a year when normalcy took a flight out of earth, the fact Lance declared for the draft after one full season and with most of three full years of eligibility remaining was another why-not moment in sports.

Because he’s 6-foot-4, 226 pounds with speed and strength, why not?

Because, when reputable NFL people qualify you as a top three quarterback, why not?

Because football is a physical game and there are no guarantees of health, why not?

Because Lance is an all-academic guy who handled the mental strain of the Bison offense like a senior, why not?

He’s been spending the last couple of months in Atlanta training with Quincy Avery at "Quarterback Takeover," or QBT.

“It’s been an awesome process,” Lance said. “Everything has been going really smooth. I’ve learned a lot and have been pushed outside my comfort zone a ton which is a big reason I made the decision that I did.”

North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance waits for the next drill during the opening day of practice on Friday, August 7, 2020. David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance waits for the next drill during the opening day of practice on Friday, August 7, 2020. David Samson / The Forum

It wasn’t an easy decision, leaving college. Lance said it was months in the making after first being made aware around the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in March that he was a top pro prospect.

Most of the attention was on social media platforms and Lance admits it was “cool and exciting” to see his name mentioned in the same zip code as the likes of Clemson's Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State's Justin Fields.

“And at this point, it’s still all hypothetical and people guessing and talking about it,” he said.

But at some point, discussion of leaving NDSU early went from social media to reality.

“It was a long, long, long process and hopefully the hardest decision I’ll ever have to make in my life,” Lance said. “Just leaving the culture at NDSU, my teammates and coaches … but at the end of the day I just felt it was the right time and the best decision for me. I prayed about it a ton and that’s the conclusion we came to.”

He didn’t leave NDSU without trying to make a difference off the field. In late May, Lance marched in downtown Fargo in the protest of police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. He carried a sign that read “I can’t breathe.”

“He will be the most popular, and scrutinized Bison player ever,” wrote Forum columnist Mike McFeely. “And he’s chosen to take that popularity for a walk, quite literally. Lance is showing he’s more than just a leader on the football field. He’s a leader, period.”

Lance wrote “BLM,” an abbreviation for Black Lives Matter, on his football cleats for the Central Arkansas game in early October at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. That was his last appearance in a Bison uniform. Two days later, he announced his NFL intentions.

“I honestly didn’t really know what to expect in that situation as far as how fast change will come,” said Lance, in reflecting back to the protest, which was peaceful when he participated. “For me personally, it was about educating people, me growing up in a primarily white community and then coming to Fargo, which is more diverse that what I had been used to growing up.”

Lance grew up in Marshall, Minn., population 13,500, located in the southwestern corner of the state. He said he was impressed at how many teammates, friends and people in the Fargo community took the time to take a step back and learn.

“I think some people are scared to do that and are uncomfortable, but having those uncomfortable conversations is what brings about change,” he said.

Certainly, his life on the field changed at NDSU. In a hurry. He spent his freshman season behind Easton Stick, who left as the FCS all-time wins leader at quarterback and now plays for the Los Angeles Chargers. Stick broke the record of former Bison quarterback Brock Jensen.

Carson Wentz took over for Jensen. Stick took over Wentz. Stick and Wentz are in the NFL. Lance is next.

The quarterback at NDSU is different, Lance said, in that he has to be as physical as any other player. He can’t be that guy “who doesn’t want to get hit” like it is at other schools.

“Easton and Carson and Brock, the guys going back before me are a huge part of it,” Lance said. “I think the toughness mentally and physically that comes along with playing the position at North Dakota State as well as the offensive staff and what they’ve done for me on and off the field; it’s me not wanting to disappoint all the way back down the line. Easton, Carson and Brock had a lot to do with it for me.”

That toughness, mentally and physically, was never more evident than that one play against James Madison in Frisco.