RICHMOND, Ky. -- Noah Spence put together a first-team All-Big Ten season in 2013, racking up eight sacks and a reputation as one of the most explosive pass rushers in the nation. All the while, though, he harbored a secret.
Spence was partying hard every weekend, regularly using the drug Ecstasy -- even on Saturday nights after games. He would come to Sunday practices dehydrated, his head pounding and his body screaming for mercy.
"I would tell myself, ‘I don't feel that, I don't feel any pain,'" Spence said. "But it was pretty bad. I had to make myself go even when I was hurting, thinking to myself, ‘I can't let anybody see that I'm dying out here.'"
Spence's secret began to come to light after he failed a drug test at the 2013 Big Ten championship game. The league slapped him with a three-game suspension, including the Orange Bowl contest against Clemson.
Still, Spence made excuses, lied to his parents and coaches and kept right on using Ecstasy -- a synthetic drug that acts as a stimulant and a hallucinogen -- until a second failed drug test months later would end his Big Ten career.
He isn't keeping secrets anymore. In a recent interview with ESPN.com, Spence confronted his past failings and detailed how he's trying to avoid making the same mistakes. Nearly 20 months after he last played in a college game, he is hoping to rebuild his standing on and off the field at Eastern Kentucky, an FCS program far from the spotlight of Columbus. He's an intriguing NFL prospect, possibly even an early-round pick in the 2016 draft.
Provided, that is, he can stay out of trouble.
One costly wake-up call
Before Joey Bosa burst onto the scene, Spence was the Buckeyes' young phenom at defensive end.
The No. 4 overall prospect in ESPN's 2012 recruiting rankings, Spence earned a starting job by his true sophomore season and delivered on his promise. Using an electric first step, he led Ohio State in sacks and tackles for loss during its 12-0 regular season in 2013. Only Nebraska's Randy Gregory had more sacks than Spence that year in the Big Ten.
He also didn't seem like an obvious problem child. Both his parents, Greg and Helen, worked for years as juvenile probation officers in Pennsylvania. They provided a structured environment for their nine sons, four of whom -- like Noah -- were their biological children and five of whom they adopted through the foster care system.
But when Spence started living away from home for the first time, he enjoyed his freedom too much.
"I got real caught up in the college lifestyle," he said. "Every weekend, I was doing too much. I was young and stupid and I thought I could go out and party all the time."
Ecstasy became his drug of choice, and though it is most popular in night clubs and raves, Spence preferred to use it at parties with friends. He'd take it every Friday and Saturday during the offseason. During the season, he limited himself to Saturday nights.
His first failed drug test failed to change his habits and only led to denial. About a week after his son missed the Orange Bowl, Greg Spence told reporters that Noah Spence had unknowingly been slipped Ecstasy in a drink at a party. Spence's parents even threatened legal action against the Big Ten.
"I was like most parents would be -- I was siding with my child," Greg Spence said earlier this week. "I believed my son and wanted to believe my son. So I backed him up, and gave him the benefit of the doubt."
Noah Spence continued to believe he could get away with his drug use. Ohio State eagerly anticipated his return after the first two games of 2014 -- until he tested positive for Ecstasy again in early September. The family held out hope that he would play again for the Buckeyes, but the Big Ten denied his appeal and upheld its permanent ban on Nov. 25.
Suddenly, Spence had no choice left but to come to grips with his problem.
"I think it was God trying to wake me up," he said. "In order for me to wake up, He had to take everything away from me."
Life without football
Spence stayed in Columbus throughout the fall of 2014, taking classes and working out with a personal trainer recommended by Ohio State strength coach Mickey Marotti. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes kept winning without him.
"Every time I came home from a game, he wouldn't be there," said Ohio State defensive tackle Adolphus Washington, who was Spence's roommate. "I pretty much knew why he had to leave. It was hard for him to deal with."
Bosa would go on to earn Big Ten defensive player of the year honors. The team had to mix and match a bit at the other defensive end spot, which should have belonged to Spence. Just think of how much damage that pair would have caused.
"It would have been scary," Washington said. "Scary."
Of course, Ohio State still had enough talent on defense to win the national title. Spence watched the championship game against Oregon with some friends in Columbus. He was happy for his former teammates and close friends. But he understood what he had missed out on.
"It hurt," he said. "A lot. It helped me to know that I want to experience something close to that in my career. I don't want to mess up anymore or go backwards."
Spence contemplated entering the NFL draft after last season (he heard feedback that he could have gone as high as the third round) but he and his family decided that he needed to mature with another year in college. So he transferred to Eastern Kentucky, dropping down to the FCS where he could be immediately eligible. The move was facilitated by Urban Meyer, who grew up with and is a close friend of Colonels coach Dean Hood.
The Spence family gives credit to Meyer for sticking with them through the tough times. Greg Spence says Meyer has been "tremendously supportive," and he and his wife remain huge Buckeyes fans.
No more secrets for Spence
Richmond, Kentucky, will never be confused for one of the epicenters of college football like Columbus, Ohio.
The town, which sits about a half-hour south from Lexington and in the shadow of the University of Kentucky, has a population of a little more than 30,000. The football program has enjoyed great success at its level, winning two national titles under legendary coach Roy Kidd. The Colonels' stadium, named after Kidd, seats about 20,000 -- or less than a fifth of the capacity of the Horseshoe.
Spence, though, is happy to be here. Last year was the first fall he didn't play football since he was 5 years old, and he says just being back in a locker room and in a team environment means everything to him.
"Even though this is not Ohio State, it feels like home," he said.
Hood says Spence "has been a dream" since he arrived on campus, finishing heavy course loads to put himself on track to graduate this fall. Spence has gained nearly 16 pounds of muscle in his year off, now checking in at 262 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. His ability to dominate at this level became obvious this spring.
"He's a special player," said Hood, who coached Butkus Award winner Aaron Curry and other future NFL players as defensive coordinator at Wake Forest. "I've never had a kid like him in this context."
Most importantly, Spence has worked on putting his drug problem behind him. He began a drug treatment program in September and said he continues to see a counselor twice a month on campus. Spence said he has taken and passed 12 drug tests in the past 11 months. He and Hood agreed to include Spence every time there is a scheduled or impromptu drug test for Colonels players this season.
"I wanted him to have as many drug tests as possible so we'd have a record to show the NFL, hey, this guy is clean," Hood said.
He hasn't been perfect. In late May, Spence was arrested in downtown Richmond on charges of alcohol intoxication in a public place and second-degree disorderly conduct. Spence said he had been drinking wine at a friend's house and threw the bottle toward a trash can on the street on the way home. He missed the can, and the bottle shattered on the sidewalk. The police report states that Spence admitted to throwing the bottle and "advised that it was a stupid thing to do."
"That was another learning experience," Spence said. "I can't be doing dumb stuff. I can't even be around it."
Since that incident, Spence said he has stopped drinking as well. He said he has had to cut friends out of his life and become less social, spending many weekends now with roommate Dy'Shawn Mobley, a running back who transferred to EKU from Kentucky. He said the two of them talk about their goals in life and how to achieve them.
Spence also has a stronger support system in place. After his second failed drug test at Ohio State, he could no longer lie to his parents about his Ecstasy use. It was a hard time for the family, especially for parents who had spent much of their lives trying to guide wayward youths. But they came out stronger because of it, with Spence learning to trust his parents more. He said he talks to them on the phone every day, and he and his father spent a week together this summer in Atlanta as Spence trained with former NFL defensive lineman Chuck Smith.
"We have more heartfelt conversations and a more open and honest relationship now," Greg Spence said. "The farther we get away from [the second failed drug test], I can say it was an important turning point. We had to get through the pain, but on the other side he is becoming the young man we tried to raise him to be."
No more secrets. Spence doesn't mind answering the tough questions because he understands he'll face them again when he goes through the NFL draft process next spring. That league's increasing wariness toward players with sketchy pasts means Spence can't afford more missteps. But Spence is ready to prove himself all over again, on and off the field, and cash in on his immense talent.
"I'm trying to handle myself like a mature adult," he said. "If I can stay clean and stay moving forward, I don't see why not."