One year ago, Noah Spence's football future was on the ropes, jeopardized by addiction. Now he's on the verge of realizing a dream.
By Jeffri Chadiha | Published April 22, 2016
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.
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.
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.
"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."
When I first got here, I didn't know what I would do for the next year. ... 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. Noah Spence
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."