Skip to main content
Original Issue

LIVING ON THE EDGE

NOAH SPENCE chugged so much water on that September day in 2014.... He knew it wouldn't work, but he had to make one last-ditch effort to save the football career that he was, rather literally, about to piss away. The Ohio State defensive end could dilute his urine sample, but that sample contained a truth that could not be hidden.

Ten months earlier, when the recreational drug MDMA (or Molly) had first shown up in Spence's sample during a Big Ten--administered drug test, Spence lied to his coaches and to his parents. Someone slipped Molly in my drink, he told them. Greg and Helen Spence fought for their son. So did Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer. But Spence knew he couldn't fool them again.

The way he tells it, he laid off the Molly and the partying immediately after that first suspension, which kept him out of the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3, 2014, and the first two games of the '14 season. But over that spring and summer, the now-22-year-old says he resumed his habit of popping a pill or dissolving one in liquid. "I started hearing about people passing tests after [taking the drug]. I was like, 'Well, shoot. I don't even think they're going to test me again.'"

One more summer of fun—clubs, raves, house parties—then he would break up with Molly, right before he stepped back on the field as a promising junior who'd rung up eight sacks a year earlier. But on that final weekend before returning, Spence rolled one more time. "This," he remembers rationalizing beforehand, "is my last Saturday to be free." Then, in the locker room the following Monday, an OSU trainer told Spence he'd need to provide a clean urine sample before reinstatement.

That wasn't going to happen, no matter how much water Spence chugged. Resigned to his fate, he dialed up a Harrisburg, Pa., number on his phone. "I have a problem that's going down right now," he told his father.

Spence has told this story dozens of times. It's embarrassing, but he feels it is in his personal, spiritual and financial best interests to keep telling it, keep coming clean. NFL scouts, coaches and execs keep asking about it. So do reporters. Hiding the details, Spence says, will do him no good.

After failing that second drug test, as he waited for the Big Ten to mull what would ultimately be a lifetime ban, Spence entered an AA-style rehab program—four-hour meetings four nights each week—in Columbus, where most of the enrollees are anonymous but Buckeyes players are not. He filled the remainder of the year with classes and treatment; then, sitting alone in his apartment in January, he watched confetti rain on his former teammates, who walloped Oregon 42--20 to win the national championship.

That same month, Spence transferred to Eastern Kentucky to prove he could still play. Every time the Colonels administered a random drug test, Spence was on the list. He passed every one. And that December—3½ years after finishing high school—he graduated from EKU with a degree in Business and Technology. More relevant to his NFL future, Spence aced his on-field exams, racking up 22½ tackles for loss and then, in January, dominating Senior Bowl practices.

He enters the draft as a 6'2", 251-pound edge rusher who explodes off the line. He can bend around blockers like the liquid-metal villain in Terminator 2, a critical trait that separates elite pass rushers from pedestrian ones. And if a 3--4 team wants to convert him into a rush backer with occasional coverage duties? That wouldn't be much different from the hybrid Viper position he played at OSU. Physically, Spence has almost everything an NFL team could want in a pass rusher. Among defensive linemen, he tested third in the broad jump at the combine (10'1"), fourth in the vertical (35.0 inches).

But Spence started the draft process with two waving red flags next to his name. He had a drug problem, and he had lied about it. So he tells the story now. "Tell the truth," his mother says, "and it'll set you free."

GREG SPENCE SHARES the story of his son's first letter-grade report card, believing that it offers a window into how a 19-year-old could party his way through drug-fueled weekends while earning All--Big Ten academic and football honors. That moment taught Greg that the eighth of his nine boys wouldn't need prodding to achieve. "He got all A's and two B-pluses, and he started crying," Greg says. "I appreciated the drive and determination, but I had to warn him: 'Look, man, you did your best. You should be happy.'"

Greg and Helen knew their son wanted to be the best at everything, but they also realized early on that he was smart enough to succeed in the classroom without spending too much time on his studies. That would come in handy at Ohio State, where Noah still made mostly A's and B's despite those chemically-enhanced weekends. Even after he failed his first drug test, Spence didn't think he had a problem. He could function as well as or better than his peers. Why worry?

When he failed a second test, he was forced to change his thinking—and come clean. "You love him, but you're disappointed," Greg says. "You don't want to show that in an angry way; he's already angry with himself."

Instead, the Spences huddled with Meyer to help Noah find treatment. At first, Spence wasn't sure he belonged in a program alongside addicts. But one woman changed his mind. "She just could not get off heroin," Spence recalls. "She was still doing it in the program. She would cry about it; it had some crazy hold on her. She lost her kids, her jobs. She was in and out of jail."

Spence's situation was not as dire, but one similarity resonated. "Before she became addicted," Spence says, "she was just like me: I'm just going to party on the weekends. It's just going to be a weekend thing."

Having acknowledged the depth of his problems, Spence rediscovered his focus on the field. But after the second failed test, he was convinced his career was over. He'd left Harrisburg a hotshot recruit; now he would return to a McJob? "Nothing against that," he says, "but that's not what I wanted my life to be like."

Even as Spence came to believe he would play again, he was still banned from the Big Ten. He considered entering the 2015 NFL draft, but his parents pushed him to transfer to an FCS school, where he could play another year without waiting, finish his degree and build some evidence of a lifestyle change, including a year's worth of passed drug tests to show NFL teams. (After school he would also begin drug testing every week, independently.) Spence weighed James Madison and Eastern Illinois—but then Meyer, who remains in contact with the Spences today, presented another option.

Dean Hood grew up a short bike ride away from Meyer in Ashtabula, Ohio. And while both friends found their way into college football coaching, their conversations rarely covered the sport. So when Meyer called up Hood, then the coach at Eastern Kentucky, to explain that he had a player who needed a second chance, Hood knew it was important. "That's one of the biggest plugs for what kind of person Noah Spence is," says Hood, who now coaches tight ends at Division I Charlotte. "Urban had never before called me about a kid."

Hood agreed early in January 2015 to drive the four hours to Columbus and meet with Spence, who was still enrolled in classes but banned from OSU's training facilities. When Hood arrived, he declared almost immediately that if Spence wanted to play for the Colonels, he'd be on every drug test list. "If the kid didn't want to get right, that would have scared him off," the coach says. "He had plenty of other places he could've gone."

Spence's transition to EKU wasn't seamless. Shortly after arriving on campus, he hurled an empty wine bottle toward a trash can, missed and was cited for public intoxication and second-degree disorderly conduct. Hood deemed the offense minor; he didn't suspend his new defensive end. But Spence knew: "My last straw."

That fall at Eastern Kentucky, Spence jotted down a few goals. He wanted 20 tackles for loss. (Check.) He wanted 15 sacks. (He settled for 11½.) He also wanted to be selected to play in the Senior Bowl, where he could again prove himself against the types of players he was facing back at Ohio State. And at season's end, the Ohio Valley Conference co--Defensive Player of the Year earned an invite to the all-star game in Mobile. There, he could better satisfy any football questions NFL teams had.

SCOUTS, COACHES and GMs ringed the field at Fairhope Stadium for Spence's first practice with the South team on Jan. 26. The largest men among these coaches—those who work with offensive and defensive linemen—stood two- and three-deep behind one end zone to observe one-on-one pass-protection drills. The Senior Bowl itself was four days away, but this is what they'd come to see. Could these offensive tackles kick slide? Did these defensive ends have any moves beyond a bull rush?

The coaches murmured and made notes as Texas Tech tackle Le'Raven Clark (a projected second-round pick) stoned massive Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman. Spence had heard the buzz about Clark, so he figured he'd challenge the 6'5" 316-pounder. A win here would prove that his skills hadn't slipped since leaving the Buckeyes.

Spence lined up in a two-point stance. At the snap, Clark slid left to meet the rusher, who took one step to the right and then stabbed his left foot into the ground and drove back inside. Spence's swim move cleared Clark's head, and Spence raced toward the invisible QB unimpeded. Clark had barely touched Spence. A collective "Oooh!" sprang from the players and coaches. Moments later, in a rematch, Spence went outside, wrapped around Clark and reached that phantom quarterback again.

Having shown enough on film and against fellow future draftees to satisfy coaches and GMs, Spence knew his draft position would come down to how he handled the off-field questions. He reports that his interviews at the Senior Bowl and at the combine went well. All Spence can do between now and the draft is tell his story.

He screwed up. He's sorry. He hopes a team will believe in him enough to select him in the first round. He also hopes he can provide a positive example for anyone else trying to climb back from rock bottom. "When you fall," he says, "that doesn't have to be the end of your story."

ONE MORE SUMMER OF FUN, SPENCE FIGURED—CLUBS, RAVES, HOUSE PARTIES—then he would break up with Molly, RIGHT BEFORE HE STEPPED BACK ON THE FIELD AS A PROMISING JUNIOR.

LIFE WAS A DREAM—FOOTBALL, PARTIES, DRUGS—FOR NOAH SPENCE ... UNTIL IT WASN'T. After a year of purgatory, he's hoping to gain the trust of an NFL team

PHOTO

PHOTOGRAPH BY TODD ROSENBERG FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

PHOTO

JAMIE SABAU/GETTY IMAGES (AT OHIO STATE)

BENEATH THE MASK For the former Buckeye, 2013 was a year of promise, '14 of penance and '15 of putting himself back on the map at Eastern Kentucky.

PHOTO

DAVID STEPHENSON/AP (EASTERN KENTUCKY)

[See caption above]

ILLUSTRATION