- Programming note: Watch the full TV premiere of "The Choice: Trey Lance" on Tuesday, Sept. 7 on NBC Sports Bay Area at approximately 9:30 p.m. after the conclusion of "Giants Postgame Live."
The uncertainty and drama might have been valuable toward building intrigue for television ratings, but the last thing Trey Lance’s mother wanted was to learn the ending on the final page.
Probably more than anything, she didn't want her son to experience disappointment in front of a national TV audience while he was stationed in the green room at Cleveland’s North Coast Harbor on NFL draft night.
“I kept asking his agent leading up to it, ‘Do you know?’ and he's like, ‘No, but we might get some kind of a tip,' ” said Angie Lance, Trey’s mom. “I bump into him in Cleveland [before the draft]. ‘Do we know?’ And he's like, ‘No, but we still might get some kind of a tip.'
“And so then all of a sudden, draft night comes, and I’m like, ‘You said we might get a tip.’ And he's like, ‘I know, I don't have anything for you.’ ”
Laying the foundation
From the moment the 49ers traded up to No. 3 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, Lance was considered one of three reasonable possibilities to become the organization’s quarterback of the future. Justin Fields and Mac Jones, the guess of nearly every well-sourced NFL reporter, were the other legitimate possibilities.
After the trade, 49ers general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan hit the road to see the prospects in person. Their first stop was Alabama to see Jones. Then it was off to Ohio State to evaluate Fields.
On April 19, Lynch, Shanahan and 49ers quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello traveled to Fargo, North Dakota, to watch Lance for the first time in person. It was Lance’s second pro day at North Dakota State, scheduled mostly as a showcase for the 49ers.
“We’d grown comfortable with the film,” Lynch said of Lance. “You want to see the live exposure just to make sure your eyes are seeing everything that you’re seeing on film, and kind of check that box.
“And then the person is important, because quarterbacks at the highest level, the guys who reach the top of the mountain in this league, they are a little different.”
Meet the parents
Anyone could tell from watching the film that Lance had the arm to succeed at the next level. His running ability also was intriguing because he could provide an added element — another way to beat defenses.
While they got their first in-person look at Lance during his pro day, Lynch and Shanahan ventured toward the seats at the Fargodome to meet Trey’s parents before entering into a long-term union with their son.
“We got to watch him work out,” Lynch said. “We also got to meet his parents. In a year we couldn't see a lot of live exposure, you really coveted the live exposure that you got.
“Albeit brief, we got to have some time with Trey. And then, Kyle and I, we snuck up to the stands and talked to his folks a little bit.”
Carlton Lance, Trey’s father, was inducted into the Southwest Minnesota State University Athletics Hall of Honor. He took part in 49ers training camp in 1994, and ended up playing for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League and for the London Monarchs in the World League. When Carlton Lance got his shot with the 49ers, Mike Shanahan was the offensive coordinator. He took his son to work at training camp.
“Coach Shanahan told a funny story during that time,” Angie Lance said. “ ‘I got to tell you, I think I was the ball boy when you were trying out for the 49ers.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, we're getting old.’ ”
Trey was concentrating on showcasing his skills and remaining focused on his on-field activities. He wasn't fully aware that the two individuals who would make the decision on his football future had initiated a conversation with his parents.
“They said that they bumped into them,” Lance said of his parents, Lynch and Shanahan. “I didn’t get many details. I was trying obviously to not get my hopes up about being here, even though they knew and I knew this is where I wanted to be even at that time.”
Lance and those who worked closely with him at North Dakota State could see exactly why the 49ers might give him the best chance at NFL success.
“When the trade went down, I guess, just as a coach, you look for fit,” North Dakota State offensive coordinator Tyler Roehl said. “Just watching their offense, following Coach Shanahan and knowing they're going to be under center, all the play-action and stuff, how they utilize the tight ends, the fullbacks, it’s very similar to what we do.
“The possibilities are endless.”
North Dakota State sent its two previous quarterbacks to the NFL: Carson Wentz and Easton Stick, a 2019 fifth-round pick of the Los Angeles Chargers.
NDSU is the most dominant program at the FCS level (formerly Division I-AA). The football program also does a better job of preparing quarterbacks for the next level than any of the big-money schools from the power conferences.
“Our quarterbacks, they verbalize plays, which is kind of not common in college football anymore because people look at all these different signs on the sidelines and all that,” Bison quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Randy Hedberg said.
Shanahan called Hedberg and wanted to know about Lance’s mastery of the finer points of the game. Based on his film study, Shanahan told Hedberg he could tell Lance was more polished at an early age than most college quarterbacks.
“He just made a comment about how he was so good in the quick game and decision-making process and he handled that so quickly in the games, and I agreed,” Hedberg said. “I had a sense right there that he had a pretty good interest in Trey.”
During the draft process, NDSU head coach Matt Entz said teams were most interested to learn about Lance’s level of maturity. After all, in his only full season as the starter, Lance was 19 years old.
What did NFL teams want to know?
“Can he handle being in the huddle with grown men, guys who have 10 years of experience on him?” Entz answered. “Can he correct them? Can he have that constructive conversation with the No. 1 receiver and move forward with them? Or will it be intimidating?
“It was very seldom that we talked about arm strength and foot quickness. It was mental capabilities, ability to continue to learn. How does he learn? Can he have that leadership role in an NFL organization?”
Lynch said the more involved the 49ers got in the process, the better Lance looked and the more, in their minds, he was separating himself from Fields and Jones.
“You poke and you prod, and you start talking to coaches and scouts and people ... ‘Tell me about the kid, tell me about the competitor, tell me about the leader,’ ” Lynch said. “And then you get a chance to meet him via Zoom. He was authentic. There’s a comfort. There’s a good vibe. He and Kyle played well off each other. All those things keep adding up.”
Lynch vividly recalls a Sunday night when Shanahan called him and said, “Hey, man, this Trey Lance, I’m really feeling this film.”
Later that evening, Shanahan sent Lynch a video that contained nearly 30 plays. Shanahan attached comments and observations on each play, pointing out the nuances he saw that provided evidence of a clear innate ability that Lance possessed to carry his skills to the NFL.
“The next thing you know, I didn’t go to bed,” Lynch said. “Linda [Lynch’s wife] was like, ‘Where were you?’ I stayed up deep into the night, early into the morning.”
Still, six days before the draft, neither Lynch nor Shanahan explicitly told the other which quarterback they preferred. Lynch said he told Shanahan that, ultimately, it would be the coach's decision.
“Come in Monday, and I’ll love whatever decision you make,” Lynch said to Shanahan.
When Shanahan revealed the decision to Lynch, it was no surprise.
“Fortunately, it’s exactly who I wanted and who I thought he’d gravitate toward,” Lynch said.
Still, few people within the 49ers organization knew which quarterback would be selected No. 3 overall.
And there is no known person outside the organization who was privy to the decision before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made the announcement on stage in Cleveland on Thursday, April 29.
Draft night angst
Inside the green room in Cleveland, the Lances and their small group of guests were settling in and trying to quickly figure out the process on draft night.
The Jacksonville Jaguars made the No. 1 overall pick. And there was no reaction backstage because Trevor Lawrence did not attend the draft.
“The second pick is Zach Wilson, and he was there, so you hear a roar because everything happens live before we see it on TV,” Carlton Lance said.
Then, the 49ers went on the clock and had 10 minutes to make their selection.
“A bunch of different stalls were there for each player and you could hear everything, the cheering, when a person was picked,” said Bryce Lance, Trey’s younger brother. “So it was super quiet. You could hear a pin drop waiting for a family to cheer.”
Said Carlton Lance: “They don't show the clock until it's like three minutes and fifty seconds [remaining], and I’m looking at it and I’m like, ‘OK, OK, so this is not going to happen, but we also haven't heard Mac Jones. We hadn't heard the roar, yet, so OK, OK.' ”
Fields wasn't in Cleveland. He was at his family’s home in Kennesaw, Georgia. Angie Lance figured, because of the silence, the cheers were occurring a few states to the South.
“So I’m thinking, ‘Oh, it was probably him,’ ” she said.
Inside the green room, mouths were dry and hands sweaty. Nobody wanted to look at Trey as the seconds slowly ticked off the clock.
Time was running out.
“The clock was winding down, so my heart was dropping for sure,” Trey Lance said. “I knew where I wanted to be, and it was kind of awkward, honestly, because everybody in the green room knew that’s where I wanted to be, too.”
Said Angie: “We’re all trying not to look, and I could see out of the corner of my eye his cell phone in his hand. So I’m like, ‘OK, well, it didn't happen.' And then Carl nudges me, and I look and he's on this other phone. And I was like, ‘What phone is that?’ ”
Wide receiver Phoenix Sproles, Lance’s best friend on the NDSU football team, said he nervously plowed through all the food in the green room. His first reaction was that Jones was the 49ers’ pick, then he saw his buddy on the phone that nobody knew was at his side.
“Trey just answers the phone and puts his head down and starts crying,” Sproles said. “And it was crazy because I could have sworn that Mac Jones' family was cheering or something.”
Trey Lance never had any inkling exactly what the 49ers thought of him until he received the word directly from Lynch.
“Welcome to the 49ers, buddy,” Lynch told him.
Then Lynch handed the phone to Shanahan.
“Did you have a hunch for a while?” Shanahan asked.
“Man, I didn’t know, Coach,” Lance responded. “You wouldn’t tell me nothing.”
Finally, all the stress that came with the months of speculation and conjecture was lifted, and the emotions poured out.
“A lot of tears, a lot of hugs, a phenomenal evening for the Lance family,” Carlton said.
Meanwhile, in his hometown of Marshall, Minnesota, and in Fargo, celebrations erupted and were captured on social media.
“The coolest thing for me was watching honestly all the reactions from draft night from my high school coaches to some of my college teammates, my high school teammates,” Trey said. “Those were videos that were kind of tough for me to watch.”
The next day, the family traveled to Santa Clara for what Angie Lance remembers as the time she'll always cherish the most from the whole, crazy draft process.
The family spent the day around Levi’s Stadium and met many members of the 49ers’ organization.
“Then, they really gave us time as a family, which we hadn't had because Trey had been gone since October, really,” Angie said. “We had seen him off and on. We just spent a couple days, just the four of us, kind of hunkered down at the hotel spending time together, and it's really the best memory I have of that whole weekend.”
Those who know him best from his short career at NDSU believe the more people in the Bay Area get to know Trey Lance, the more they will appreciate everything he brings with him.
“They're getting a kid who checks all the boxes,” Roehl said. “Honestly, a kid who has the ultimate passion for football, for learning football, for competing.”
“Passion,” Sproles said. “Passion for the game. You're gonna see it. You're gonna see him give it his best. I don't know when you're going to see him on the field. He might be behind Jimmy [Garoppolo] for a couple years, a couple games, who knows?
“But whenever Trey gets the opportunity to get on the field, he's going to give the 49ers community and the fans a show.”
It already has been a great show — this Trey Lance-to-the-49ers story. Now, the person most eager to learn the decision might be the most grateful that the organization’s top decision-makers turned out to be so good at keeping the biggest secret of all.
“We thought it could happen, but it was still such a shock,” Angie Lance said. “I love Coach Shanahan and Mr. Lynch for making it happen that way.
"At the time, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? You can't give us any clue?' But it's a great story.”
Coming next Thursday: Part 2 -- How Lance's North Dakota State years shaped him