INDIANAPOLIS: Noah Spence’s former teammates at Ohio State now realize the dark place he was in.
Until he failed his second drug test in September 2014, they had no idea of the magnitude of the secret Spence was keeping, a secret that nearly cost the talented defensive end his football career. They had no idea that while partying on weekends, Spence was using Ecstasy, dissolving the pills in bottled water and sometimes staying awake for 48 hours.
Permanently banned by the Big Ten, the first five-star recruit by OSU coach Urban Meyer was forced to leave the team and underwent treatment in an intensive program at OSU.
“I was really worried about him. He was down,” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington, Spence’s old housemate, said of Spence’s banishment. “After the games he would always be sad. I would try to talk to him, but when a guy loves football as much as he does, it’s hard to talk to somebody about it.”
Meyer thought so much of Spence and his family that he contacted his childhood friend Dean Hood, football coach at Eastern Kentucky, and convinced him to take in Spence. Spence played last season at the FCS school, recorded 11½ sacks and 22½ tackles for losses and was named co-defensive player of the year in the Ohio Valley Conference. He called his time in Richmond, Ky., “a business trip.”
Now Spence is one of the best comeback stories in the 2016 NFL Draft. After a superb showing at the Senior Bowl, he’s considered by some as the best edge rusher available. He’s shooting up draft boards and could be a top 10 pick.
I will root for Spence (and that has nothing to do with the fact that he spent last season at my alma mater), just as long as he’s not in a Browns uniform.
Edge rusher is perhaps the Browns’ most pressing need behind quarterback. Spence is a special talent who is worth the risk. He said he passed weekly drug tests at Eastern Kentucky. He seems rehabilitated, although it sent up a red flag when he said Friday his problem was “more me going to parties and stuff like that. It was never really an addiction.”
Even if Spence shockingly fell to the Browns at No. 32, I would pass on him.
With quarterback Johnny Manziel and wide receiver Josh Gordon, the Browns have learned the hard way about players with deep-rooted issues, although Spence said that wasn’t the case with him.
“There’s a group of people I can’t hang with. I have to be more myself and stay away from that party scene,” Spence said Friday during the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. “Every time I did it, it was me going out and partying.”
But can he stay away from it with the money and fame the NFL brings?
Spence has what teams covet — pure speed. Ohio State left tackle Taylor Decker said Spence “can run for days” and could race linebackers and beat them downfield. As a sophomore in 2013, Spence led the Buckeyes in sacks and tackles for losses, making first team All-Big Ten and Academic All-Big Ten.
But even as his former Ohio State teammates laud Spence, they may be silently holding their breaths, too.
“I’m really glad to see Noah’s responding and he’s doing really well right now,” linebacker Joshua Perry said. “A lot of people are really high on him, as they should be. He’s come a long way. I talk to him every chance I see him. That’s an awesome story right there.”
Spence had Thanksgiving dinner with Washington at Washington’s parents’ home in Cincinnati last year. He stays in touch with Spence on a daily basis.
“Just to see him go from where he was to now, I’m really proud of him and hope he continues,” Washington said.
The resolve Spence has shown has been impressive.
“It was just a mindset; I didn’t want to be a failure, ever. I put in my mind I wasn’t going to be,” he said. “I wanted to be in the NFL, be a great player and I wasn’t going to let that stuff hold me back.”
But as the Browns search for an edge rusher, they must keep new coach Hue Jackson’s emphasis on high character in mind. There has been too much turmoil in the organization brought on by Manziel’s and Gordon’s respective alcohol and substance abuse issues.
As intoxicating as Spence’s speed might be, the Browns may look, but shouldn’t imbibe.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com.