Inside banned ex-Buckeye Noah Spence’s battle back from drug addiction
Last January as the college football world watched Ohio State dominate Oregon to win the national title, one man sat home in Columbus with his phone shut off and forced himself to watch the entire thing, even though he really didn’t want to.
Noah Spence is no Ohio State hater, though. He was thrilled for the Buckeyes, but watching the game that night tore him up inside.
“I had tears in my eyes,” Spence told FOX Sports. "I forced myself to watch it. The whole thing. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance and I messed it all up.”
Spence was Urban Meyer’s first five-star recruit to commit to the new era at Ohio State four years earlier. As a sophomore in 2013, the defensive lineman had 14.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks, leading the Buckeyes in both categories and sparking Ohio State to a 12-0 regular season. He made first-team All-Big Ten and also made Academic All-Big Ten. Spence managed to do all that while keeping a dark secret inside and away from his family and teammates.
Suspicions about Spence first began to surface after he failed a drug test for a banned substance at the 2013 Big Ten title game. He was suspended for three games, which caused him to miss the Orange Bowl. Spence, though, lied to his family and coaches about what triggered the positive test, blaming it on someone slipping something into his drink.
Truth is, it was Spence himself who was putting things in his drinks. Spence failed another drug test in September 2014, testing positive for Ecstasy. He appealed the test, but it was denied and the star player found out he was permanently banned from the Big Ten a few days before the Buckeyes were to face Wisconsin for the Big Ten title. With Spence off the team, Ohio State crushed the Badgers, then handled No. 1 Alabama before defeating the Ducks for the national championship.
As Spence sat staring at the 52-inch screen that January night, he said he thought about the first time he got caught up in it. Thought about all those chances to stop taking the drug. Thought about every time someone told him, “You’re going to lose everything if you keep doing this dumb stuff.”
"I will never in my life forget that feeling,” Spence said. "That feeling right there is always in my head whenever I do anything because I know I don’t ever want to go back again, hit rock bottom — and I know I won’t be back there ever again because I will always have that feeling in my mind.”
Spence has come a long way since that evening — at least emotionally. His playing career has resumed three hours down I-71 at FCS Eastern Kentucky, where he’s back to wreaking havoc on the field again. The 6-foot-3, 261-pound Spence has 12 tackles for loss and seven sacks, leading all of FCS in TFLs per game with 2.0 and ranking fourth in sacks with 1.17 for a team that almost defeated Kentucky earlier this month. Spence was the best player on the field that day and is back flashing on the NFL scouting radar.
“He’s so quick-twitch and when he sticks his toe in the ground and comes underneath, he really gets there fast,” said UK offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “If he played in our conference he’d be an All-SEC player, no doubt about it."
Noah Spence’s first time using Ecstasy came at a party. He tried it in high school during his senior year. "It was more of a curious thing,” he said. "I didn’t know much about it. I was at a party and was handed it, and thought, ‘This can’t really kill me, I’m gonna go ahead and do this.’ But then it got to the point where I thought, ‘I’m gonna do this every time I go to a party because it’s fun.’ "
Spence had tried marijuana a few times before, he said, but didn’t like the way it made him feel down. Ecstasy — Molly — was different. In pill form, he’d drop it in a bottle of water and it’d dissolve. "It makes you happy, crazy,” he said. “It enhances your partying. You’d be up all night. Kinda whacked out. You do remember stuff but it’s a little blurred. You get addicted to the feeling, to having a good time while you’re on it. I wouldn’t do it during the week. I would strictly do it when I was going to a party.
“There was another problem I had — I was getting it for free. ‘Oh, you want this? Here, go ahead.’ ”
Spence didn’t think he had an addiction to the drug because he wasn’t taking it during the week. On weekends, though, he might stay up almost 48 hours straight while he was on it.
And, why would Spence think he had a problem? His GPA still stayed above 3.0. On the field, he made first-team all-conference in 2013 — and for a team loaded with elite athletes, Spence might’ve been the most unique. "He might’ve been the freakiest,” said Ohio State senior defensive lineman Tommy Schutt. "The thing we always talk about was his endurance. We’d run sprints and he’d come in first every time and he was running with the big, skill players. It was unbelievable."
At the Big Ten title game, something else unbelievable happened for the Buckeyes. Spence failed a drug test. Those closest to him — his parents, his teammates, his coaches — were all stunned that Spence tested positive for Ecstasy, which given his performance on the field and in the classroom, didn’t seem to make sense. So, he lied to all of them, and kept on doing it.
"Everyone thought someone slipped something into my drink at a party,” he said. “So, in the back of my mind I’m still getting away with stuff because I’m hiding it. I was my own worst enemy. I was hiding everything. That made it easier for me to do it because I felt like nobody knew. I felt like as long as I could still perform on the field and do well in the classroom, I thought, ‘Why not act crazy on the weekends?’ ”
Spence had a girlfriend whom he started dating in his freshman year who found out he was into Ecstasy a few months before his second positive test and confronted him.
“She was really upset. I said, ‘You don’t know me like that,’ but she really did know me like that. I was like, ‘Nobody is going to tell me what to do.’ I stopped talking to her. Just like that, I was done with her. I guess I didn’t care about myself enough at the time."
In September 2014, Spence failed a second test for a banned substance, which meant he was permanently ineligible according to Big Ten rules.
"I knew I messed up a lot,” he said. “Immediately, I felt like I failed my family; my second thought was, ‘How am I gonna get everything back?’ "
There was no more lying about anyone slipping something into his drink any more. Urban Meyer told Spence that if he didn’t change, he was going to lose everything.
“You know what time it is,” Meyer told him. “It’s on you now. You either change your life or you lose your life.”
Spence addressed his teammates inside the Buckeyes football complex and announced that he had been doing too much partying, that he had been taking Ecstasy. That he had a serious problem, and that he needed help.
"I was devastated,” said Buckeyes defensive lineman Adolphus Washington, Spence’s former housemate. "I never had a friend that had that type of problem. I felt like it was my fault because I didn’t do nothing sooner."
Meyer set Spence up with a drug-treatment program connected to the hospital at Ohio State that he began in mid-September. Spence would go there four nights a week for four hours each night before graduating from the program Oct. 27, 2014.
"It was real intense,” Spence said. "It was called Intensive Outpatient. I saw a lot of things that I thought I would never see. People addicted to heroin. People with real problems. With that going on and with the season going on, it was a lot. It’s definitely scary. It almost brought me to tears. You see people who have thrown their whole lives away, and know it and still can’t do anything about it because of the drug they’re on.”
It didn’t help, he says, that people there knew who Spence was. "I’m in Ohio. People are like, ‘Damn, he’s going through this?!’ ” He admits that at first he felt like he didn’t belong in there with all of those other addicts. “Like, ‘What am I doing in here with them?’ But then, you start to look at yourself and realize, ‘I literally just threw everything away too. So I have no room to act like I’m any better than anyone here. I’ve thrown away my life, so who am I to judge anybody? I’m just here, same as they are.’
"I was the youngest one there. There were people there from 21 to 60s. I heard this one story from this lady on heroin who lost her whole family — lost her kids, her husband — lost everything she had, went to jail and was so addicted to the drug, she came out and was still doing it. She didn’t have any feelings left. My biggest help was losing everything. After that was seeing that everyone stayed in my corner — my parents, my coaches at Ohio State — that was a big push to me to know that people were still in my corner even though I messed up."
In the apartment Spence shared with former teammates Washington and receiver Jeff Greene, he tried to keep to himself. Every night at 11 p.m., Spence would put his earphones in and run five miles around the neighborhood to burn off some energy. He also made the move to block all the numbers from the people that were with him whenever he took Ecstasy. "I had to cut those people out of my life,” he said. "Once I figured that out and that those people don’t have my best interest at heart, it was easier to cut those people out of my life. I blocked all those numbers and got a new phone so I wouldn’t know those numbers and they wouldn’t be able to contact me. I’m never going to see those people again.”
Many assumed Spence would enter the NFL Draft and hope to catch on as a late-round pick by some team taking a gamble on his freaky athleticism, but he opted to transfer down to the FCS level. "I felt like I hadn’t proven enough off the field and that I needed more time to show everybody that you could be a better person off the field and to show that that wasn’t me — and that I can go for the rest of my life and be a straight-forward great person, and that I can do that, starting with disciplining myself enough to go down a level and not be ignorant and try and go straight to the NFL."
Meyer contacted childhood friend Dean Hood, now the head coach at FCS Eastern Kentucky, a three-hour drive from Columbus. Hood said he and Meyer had never talked football since their coaching careers took root — until last winter. Meyer texted Hood saying, "This is a great kid. A big-time player and a great person. He would thrive with a second chance.”
"I knew right away after talking to Urban, there was no feeling-out process,” Hood said. "I was guns a-blazing trying to get him to come to EKU. I trust Urban Meyer with my life. There’s no way that this is a good kid, good player and deserves a second chance if he had any red flags whatsoever. Knowing our relationship, Urban would never do anything to hurt me."
Hood did some digging and got educated from speaking to EKU’s counseling center to learn about the battle Spence faced. "I asked, ‘What are we dealing with? What does it do? What is its effect? Why is it addictive? And then, can you get a hold of Ohio State to find out what are they doing counseling-wise and can we get the same type of program here?’ "
With Meyer’s blessing, Spence and his parents were convinced that Eastern Kentucky was the ideal place to resume his football career. Spence also had a request for Hood, his new coach.
"I asked them if they could put me on every drug-test list here even though I know I’m clean,” Spence said.
Hood liked that, adding that after this season, he can give the NFL a long sheet that says "he was drug tested here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here — and they were all good."
"He’s pissed I don’t drug-test him even more,” Hood said, adding that Spence has been clean all five times that the school has tested him.
In May, Spence was arrested on charges of alcohol intoxication and second-degree disorderly conduct. Hood said Spence had tried to throw a bottle towards a trash can. He missed. It shattered and a policeman saw it and wrote the player up. The incident has been expunged and Spence did some community service.
Spence said he just had two glasses of wine with a couple of friends and that he has no alcohol to drink since the start of the football season.
On the field, Spence has been as advertised. Not only does he lead the nation in TFLs, his presence also is drawing double-teams and forcing opponents to re-jigger their blocking schemes, which is enabling his EKU teammates to make more plays. The Colonels already have 19 sacks in six games. That’s as many as they had in 13 games last year.
"He’s been awesome," Hood said. “Noah has an unbelievable motor and he’s been a joy to be around. He is phenomenal responding to coaching. You can coach him hard and he doesn’t shut down. He has this competitive rage about him, which makes him great, but a lot of guys like that aren’t coachable. He is, though. He gets it."
Spence will graduate from EKU on Dec. 12 with a general studies degree. He plans to go into real estate after his football career is over, but Spence hopes his next step is the NFL. He knows there are plenty of skeptics out there.
"I just want to show the world that I am a better person than when I left Ohio State,” he said. "I used to say to my dad that everybody that’s real good in the NFL always seems like they have a story and I don’t have one. I guess now this is my story. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and my situation has definitely made me stronger. I sit back and think about my life before I do anything. Before, everything that I did was off impulse.
"I’d do anything someone told me that I couldn’t do. ‘I can do it!’ I was young, dumb and immature. This situation has made me grow up fast. I feel like it’s all part of God’s plan.”
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FS1. He is also a New York Times best-selling author. His new book, “The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks,” came out in October 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB and Facebook.