How QB-passionate Fargo helped mold Colts' Carson Wentz and 49ers' Trey Lance

ByMike Wells and Nick Wagoner ESPN logo
Wednesday, October 20, 2021

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In a small city like Fargo, North Dakota, it doesn't take long for secrets to become public -- especially when it comes to the North Dakota State quarterback.

Which is why, even as starter Brock Jensen was leading the Bison to three consecutive FCS national championships between 2011 and 2013, whispers about scout team quarterback Carson Wentz and his practice field exploits reached mythic proportions.

When Wentz got his turn in 2014, he quickly set about making his mark through hard work and early morning film sessions.

Wentz, now the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, knew his diligence would help him on the field. What he didn't know is it would become a Bison quarterback tradition, carried on by Easton Stick, now a backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Chargers, and Trey Lance, the No. 3 overall pick of the 2021 NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers.

"The thing that's really neat about our quarterbacks is we want them to leave their own legacy," Bison quarterback coach Randy Hedberg said. "We didn't want Easton to be Carson. We didn't want Trey to be Easton. ... They have got to play to what they do best."

That legacy will be on display as Lance's 49ers host Wentz's Colts on Sunday night at Levi's Stadium (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).

Wentz will start for the Colts, and while it remains to be seen if Lance will play because of a left knee sprain, his status for Sunday won't dampen the spirits of the 126,000 or so people living in Fargo. The town beams with pride at the accomplishments of the former Bison quarterbacks.

It's a sentiment shared by the quarterbacks, who have similar affection for the town and fan base that nurtured two of the most unlikely top-three NFL draft picks in recent memory.

"It's big for the state, big for that region of the country," Wentz said. "Huge credit for the football program up there, especially having two quarterbacks. It shows that up at North Dakota State they prepare the right way and teach football the right way."

Building the Bison QB legacy

Hedberg first saw Lance the summer before his sophomore season at Marshall High in Minnesota. He went to see the quarterback again in the winter, watching him throw inside the school's gym. When Hedberg returned to see him play football the next fall and basketball the following winter, Lance was already the top quarterback on the Bison's recruiting board. Lance would become a three-star prospect nationally and one of the top prospects in Minnesota.

Hedberg still remembers where he was when he received Lance's commitment call: on a recruiting trip in Billings, Montana.

In some ways, Lance was the first real litmus test for whether Wentz's draft status (No. 2 overall by thePhiladelphia Eagles in 2016) and NFL success would translate on the recruiting trail. The answer? It was a massive win that reverberated throughout the program.

"That's one of the things that helped us get Trey, the success that Carson had," Matt Larsen, North Dakota State's athletic director, said. "We've seen the benefits, particularly at the quarterback position, of having two guys go in the top three in the NFL draft."

Establishing that quarterback legacy has been a joint effort between a coaching staff that implicitly trusts its quarterbacks to handle many tasks and a group of players constantly seeking ways to evolve. An example? Lance put together his own video cutups for receivers and offensive linemen on Fridays with detailed instructions on route concepts and protections.

The additional time the quarterbacks spent studying eventually led to their inclusion in the weekly game-planning process. Hedberg asked Wentz to rank his favorite third-down and red zone calls every week, and the play sheet would reflect those preferences on game day. Stick and Lance were afforded the same input.

During games, the quarterbacks were given even more responsibility. The pre-snap checklist included spitting out lengthy play calls in the huddle, learning and understanding protections, a "maybe" system in which the quarterback could run or pass based on a defensive front and a "kill" system that allowed the quarterback to change from run to pass or vice versa based on coverages.

It wasn't just X's and O's, either. As freshmen, the quarterbacks joined their teammates in a Bison rite of passage at outdoor practices and games (the Bison play home games in the Fargo Dome). First-year players aren't allowed to wear sleeves or leggings regardless of the weather, a brutal rule, given Fargo's notoriously frigid winters (the average high temperature in November is 37 degrees). It's a North Dakota State tradition, the polar opposite of baptism by fire for campus newbies.

"You're out there suffering, practicing in blizzards and everything like that," Lance said. "It's just the way it is. If you try to come out in sleeves, the seniors will definitely rip your sleeves off with no hesitation. So, it's one of those things, kind of an initiation and earning respect. But everyone's got to go through it, regardless of who you are."

All of it led to Wentz and Lance enjoying immense success. Wentz led North Dakota State to national titles in 2014 and 2015 and Lance in 2019, his lone full season as the team's starter.

The common thread, according to Phil Hansen, one of the school's most accomplished former NFL players and current radio color analyst, is the quarterbacks never made the same mistake twice.

"You could see them progress from one level to the next level, and very seldom did either of those players regress and go back to a lower level," Hansen said.

Fargo's 'humble, gracious' celebrities

About 400 steps from the North Dakota State University Library sits Herd & Horns, the Bison-themed bar and grill owned by a group of former NDSU athletes. It's a regular stop for students, faculty, fans and, of course, football players and coaches.

For the quarterback duo of Wentz and Lance, a stop at the restaurant would qualify as a night on the town during their college years. Most of their time was spent in class, studying, at the practice facility, home or church.

In a town where football players -- especially quarterbacks -- are local celebrities, Herd & Horns has become something of a safe haven where the likes of Wentz and Lance could go and enjoy a meal or a game of darts without being bothered.

"They were both celebrities around our town," Larsen said. "You probably won't meet two more humble, gracious young men who had great success than those two guys. Both incredibly faith-based. Great leaders, great in the locker room, great in the community in terms of giving back."

From the moment his quarterbacks arrive on campus, Hedberg hammers home how important it is for them to be active in the community.

It's a role Wentz quickly embraced. Hedberg recalls getting a phone call from a fan letting him know there was a young man in the hospital who went to the same high school as Wentz (Century High School in Bismarck, North Dakota). He asked if Wentz would visit.

Hedberg passed the message on to Wentz, who made the visit unbeknownst to his coach. Such stories became part of Wentz's legacy in Fargo and have continued with the establishment of his Audience of One foundation and annual charity softball game in the area.

"Really, once I knew I was going to have a platform and be a draft pick, I didn't waste any time," Wentz said. "I wanted to do what I can to give back."

Lance also took that responsibility seriously.

In the spring, the town has what they call a "flood fight," where they get volunteers to make one million sandbags. About every eight minutes, you have to fill a sandbag. It's tedious work for anyone, let alone a star quarterback, but Lance was a willing participant.

After the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, Lance used his platform to speak out on social justice issues. He participated in peaceful protests in Fargo and sent a message via his cleats in the lone game he played that season, writing "BLM" for Black Lives Matter and the number "204," which was the number of days since Breonna Taylor had been shot and killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky.

All of it left a lasting impression on Fargo mayor Tim Mahoney.

"He sees the bigger picture, and we feel very much that he gets it," Mahoney said of Lance.

When Wentz and Lance return to town these days, they often reach out to Brent Tehven, the part owner and general manager of Herd & Horns, to ask if they can pop into the private room.

Wentz doesn't get back as much as he'd like but still stops through once or twice a year for a burger and fries, many times on his way to what he calls a "borderline second to none" bird-hunting experience.

"When they come to town, if they have time, they try to swing in and say hello," Tehven said. "They've got a place they feel safe when they come to town. Our fans enjoy seeing them, but they leave them alone for the most part."

Fargo not just a Vikings town, especially this Sunday night

For all intents and purposes, Fargo -- almost 240 miles northwest of Minneapolis along I-94 -- remains a Minnesota Vikings town. But with nine former Bison on NFL rosters, keeping tabs on all of them has become strenuous.

That is why Hansen lobbied for the Bison radio broadcasts to include a weekly segment on Bison players in the NFL into their pregame show.

"That's my way of making sure I keep up with what's going on with those guys," Hansen said.

On an average Sunday at Herd & Horns, many televisions are set on the Vikings, but there are always some set aside for Wentz, usually in the early window, and some for Lance, often in the later window.

On Sunday night, one game will light up all the screens as Lance's Niners host Wentz's Colts. How will the fans choose which quarterback to cheer for?

Hedberg said he wouldn't be surprised if Wentz gets a slight edge, since he's from North Dakota, but he's not confident enough in that opinion to put odds on it, noting that he thinks it will be pretty split.

Tehven plans to board a 5 a.m. flight bound for the Bay Area to attend the game in person. He also expects his bar to be split, with everyone rooting for both quarterbacks to throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns and one team kicking a last-second field goal.

"You have a hard time deciding who you're going to root for," Mahoney said. "It helps put Fargo and NDSU further on the map. That really helps our community recruit people. I don't go around and people say, 'Oh Fargo.' They say, 'You have these great quarterbacks, this great football program.' So, we really enjoy that."

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