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The Ascent: Noah Spence's pursuit of redemption

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RICHMOND, Ky. -- Noah Spence grabbed a blank sheet of legal-sized paper and a reliable ballpoint pen, then hunkered down and exhaled. He racked his brain for ideas before distilling them into simple, digestible aspirations. Spence already had spent two months settling into his new home at Eastern Kentucky, all the while wondering how his life had careened so far off-course. As he sat in his two-bedroom apartment, he wanted to feel more like the old Noah and less like the guy who lost his Ohio State career to drug addiction.

Spence spent that afternoon in March 2015 constructing a list of attainable goals. He wrote that he wanted to graduate with a 3.0 grade-point average, strengthen his religious faith and redeem his tainted reputation. He added on-field benchmarks of excellence as well, such as reaching 15 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. Spence had come to EKU feeling like he had been sentenced to prison. This was the day when he truly began to see the light.

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Once Spence finished his list, he rose from his desk and taped the paper above the door in his bedroom. He also posted a calendar right below it, so he could mark off every day until he found himself where he is now -- with a chance to become a first-round pick in the NFL draft.

"I honestly didn't think I'd be in this position," Spence said during a recent interview. "I thought I'd have to come into the league as a fourth- or fifth-round pick, and then I'd have to fight to find a place on a roster. That's where my head was at last year. That's what I was getting ready for."

Spence is easily the most intriguing prospect in the 2016 NFL Draft. He possesses breathtaking talent and head-shaking baggage, which means he's the kind of player who can make a general manager look very smart or very gullible. Spence spent two seasons at Ohio State developing a reputation as a dynamic defensive force with a knack for terrorizing quarterbacks. He also lost his eligibility in the Big Ten after failing two drug tests -- Spence later admitted that he was addicted to Ecstasy -- and transferred to EKU in January 2015.

There's little doubt Spence did what he had to do at Eastern Kentucky. The 6-foot-2, 251-pound defensive end/outside linebacker earned FCS All-American honors last season by amassing 11.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss. He also graduated with a degree in general studies last December, with the 3.0 GPA he had so sorely coveted. Ideally, demonstrating that kind of commitment would be enough to make pro teams believe Spence has completely turned his life back in the right direction.

It also doesn't hurt that Spence is blessed with enough explosiveness and quickness to be a dominant edge rusher in a draft that, as one AFC scout said, "doesn't have a lot of those." When asked how he's put himself back into the conversation to be a first-round pick, Spence said, "I feel like I've changed the perception about myself. I wanted to see everything that was written and said about me, and then I wanted to show I was a better person than that."

"A lot of these kids have baggage," an AFC personnel director said. "It comes down to what you can live with, and he's made some big strides. I wouldn't evaluate him so much off what he did at Eastern Kentucky, but he was playing as a freshman at Ohio State and making an impact (eight sacks) as a sophomore. He's going to have a long career in this league. I would say that he's got more natural ability than Joey Bosa." Bosa, who played with Spence at Ohio State, is considered the top defensive-line prospect in this class.

"Noah is just pure speed," said Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker, who's also projected as a first-round pick. "He's really quick off the ball and has a really good motor. I'm just happy to see he was able to turn things around, because I know he was going through some dark times. I like him as a person and I've always gotten along with him. It's cool to see a guy who had every reason to fail, but didn't use one of them as a reason to fail."

Those are the kinds of comments Spence hopes to hear every time he meets with an NFL team. During his recent interview on the EKU campus, he said nine franchises already had flown him in for visits, including the Jaguars, Jets, Packers and Cardinals. Spence was especially excited to meet with Texans linebackers coach Mike Vrabel, who coached him during his first two years at Ohio State. Spence beamed as soon as Vrabel entered the room, knowing full well that here was somebody who knew something about Spence's character long before his life unraveled.

Those visits told the 22-year-old Spence that he'd come a long way in the last 15 months. "When I first got here, I didn't know what I would do for the next year," Spence said. "I didn't know what it would be like, if people would accept me. I didn't know if people were going to look at me and just see a drug addict who showed up on campus."

That anxiety was well-founded. Spence arrived at EKU after dealing with the pain of missing the previous season at Ohio State and watching the Buckeyes win the national championship. He later wound up in a fight with one of his new teammates at EKU, after the player confronted Spence during a workout and said, according to Spence, "I hope you don't think you're going to be the man here." Spence even had a run-in with the law on May 28, when a police officer observed him and three other people standing near a car late at night.

Spence said he had an empty bottle of wine in his hand and tried to toss it into a nearby trash can. When he missed and the bottle shattered, he said, the officer arrested him for public intoxication. Prosecutors later expunged the charge from his record, but the two hours Spence spent in a holding cell frightened him.

"I sat there thinking to myself, What has your life come to?" Spence said. "I threw a wine bottle at a trash can, and suddenly I'm sitting in jail. I was thinking that was probably it for me [as far as the draft]. I was thinking, three strikes and I'm out."

It says plenty about Spence that those missteps didn't destroy his comeback. It's also stunning that he wound up dealing with such issues in the first place. After all, Spence grew up in a humble home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where his parents, Greg and Helen, both worked as juvenile probation officers. (Helen is now Systems of Care community coordinator for Dauphin County.) Noah eventually became the 2011 Pennsylvania Gatorade Football Player of the Year while at Bishop McDevitt High School and also graduated with a 3.45 GPA.

Spence was such a straight arrow that when he received permission from his father to get a tattoo at the age of 18, Noah chose a passage from the Bible: Romans 8:28. ("And we know all things work together for good for those that love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.") Said Greg: "Noah was always a classy kid. Even as a little boy, he was determined and driven both in sports and in school. He always had goals for himself."

Spence had a similar reputation at Ohio State, where he was named first-team All-Big Ten and Academic All-Big Ten as a sophomore. But then Spence tested positive for Ecstasy in December 2013. Nine months later -- after the conference suspended him for three games following that first transgression -- Spence failed a second test, in September 2014. The news shocked everyone who knew him.

"I just got caught up with the wrong crowd," Spence said. "Nobody forced me to do anything, but I look back and think, What was 18- and 19-year-old Noah thinking?"

"I was really worried about him," said former Ohio State defensive tackle Adolphus Washington, himself a draft prospect this year. "He was down. We lived together, and after the games, I would always see him, and he would always be sad. I would always try to talk to him, but when a guy loves football as much as he does, it's hard just to talk to somebody about it."

That time away from football proved extremely valuable to Spence's maturation. For one, he had to attend group rehab sessions as part of his penalty. One of the most vivid memories he had from that experience involved a young woman with a heroin addiction arriving high to a meeting. Spence had witnessed many troubling things before that point -- "I saw people who were a little older than me who looked like they were 70," he said -- but the image of that stoned lady sitting down to get help haunted him.

What was more reassuring was the way his parents reacted to his problem. Instead of bashing him, they took the approach that helped them deal with the troubled youths they encountered in their own jobs: They created a plan that included finding a new school, committing to graduating early and regaining a focus that would make Noah what Greg terms "a mature, humble adult."

Said Greg: "We had a three-hour meeting with Coach Meyer and [defensive line coach] Larry Johnson, and it was upsetting to hear. But I also didn't want to kill [Noah] while he was down. I didn't want to lose him. And I didn't want him to get reckless. He was 20 years old. He still had his whole life ahead of him." Spence appealed the suspension in an effort to stay eligible at Ohio State. When that failed, Meyer asked Spence to meet with an old friend, Dean Hood, who was coaching at Eastern Kentucky at the time and had driven to Columbus to visit in early January. Meyer -- who declined to speak for this story, as did Larry Johnson -- thought EKU could be a good fit for Spence. After meeting with Hood for 45 minutes, Spence liked the idea so much that he enrolled at EKU two weeks later.

It wasn't just that Hood talked about building the defense around Spence's disruptive talents, or the fact that Hood told him that "we have the same drug counseling program that you had at Ohio State and we’re going to beat this thing." Spence simply wanted to make everything right as soon as possible.

"It was hard for me to even be around my family during those first few months," Spence said. "We would talk on the phone, but I felt like I didn't want to see anybody until I did something right. As I started playing football again and getting good grades, I became more comfortable with them coming around."

Spence needed only to compete in one game at EKU to realize the difference in competition. After lining up for a few plays in a 52-10 win over Valparaiso in the 2015 season opener, he thought he had set his on-field goals too low. Spence went on to post at least one sack in nine of the 11 games he played -- while also earning Ohio Valley Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors -- but his major challenge was not losing his intensity against lesser competition. As Spence said, "There was still somebody out there who was trying to beat me, and I wasn't going to let any man do that."

"I had several pro scouts say they were really impressed with how hard Noah practiced,” Hood said. "It shocked me at first. But then they said they had seen players drop down [in competition] and those players would be riding bikes at practice or doing a few reps of team drills. That wasn't Noah. He hated coming out. My biggest challenge was getting him to let up so our quarterbacks could throw the ball."

Spence was equally diligent off the field. Once he decided to go to EKU, he demanded that Hood test him as many times as possible, which, Spence said, led to him taking 10 school-administered tests and two others handled by the NCAA. Spence also took 30 credit hours during the year, which enabled him to graduate last December in just three-and-a-half years. "Watching him walk across that stage was important, because no matter what happened, he had that education to fall back on," Helen Spence said. "That meant more than a million dollars to me."

Spence understood that degree would be just the first step in rehabilitating his image for pro scouts. Graduating early allowed him to earn an invitation to the Senior Bowl, where he was so determined to compete that he practiced and played through a strained hamstring. That same injury hindered him at the NFL Scouting Combine (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.80 seconds) and his pro day a week later (he ran in 4.75 and 4.79 there), but Spence didn't fret. His best shot at improving his draft stock would come from how he answered questions about his past.

When asked how much scrutiny he's faced during the pre-draft evaluation process, Spence said the grilling began at the Senior Bowl and never ended. "It felt like I had two combines," he said of the inquiries. "But I also couldn't do anything but be truthful. They already know everything, so it's best to just be honest."

Spence is praying teams see how he's grown. His father talks about how his son enjoys the "simple pleasures these days -- going to movies, reading books, cooking and even designing his own clothes." Even though Spence said he doesn't have to enter the NFL's drug program -- because his last positive test was 19 months ago -- he still has his agents test him weekly, and he's expressed his willingness to let teams test him. What's impossible to predict is how all these efforts will impact him on April 28, when the draft kicks off.

The encouraging thing about Spence is that he's fully aware of what he can control and how far he's come. He recently received a text from Meyer that spoke to that very issue. It was a photo of Spence and Meyer after the player had arrived at Ohio State in 2012. Spence chuckled when viewing a picture of a gangly teenager eager to start his college career, but he also thought about how innocent that kid was back in those days.

There's no way Spence can turn back time and undo all the problems he created for himself since that point. But he's finally at peace with the path he's had to travel and where it's about to lead next.

"If none of this had happened, I'd probably be the kind of player who would be on his way out of the league in a few years," he said. "I wouldn't have become a better person, and my mind wouldn't be where it is today. I'm trying to write a new chapter in the story of my life after all of this. So I'm actually glad that all this stuff ended up happening to me."

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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