Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer 13d

Trying to carve: The Lions' 307-pound snowboarder



ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It took him a half-hour to stand up. Making his way down the bunny hill successfully took almost a day. After his first day snowboarding, Detroit Lions defensive tackle Akeem Spence almost gave up.

He went to dinner in Park City, Utah, that February 2015 night with his friend, Stephen Onaga, frustrated, yet determined. He was a professional athlete, yet a rarity on the mountain -- a man over 300 pounds trying to snowboard. And he wanted to be good. He just wasn't sure if it would actually happen.

"I was ready to go home, man," Spence said. "Because it was just like I spent all this money on taking a class. You know, I'm thinking I'm an athlete, so it shouldn't take me no time -- 30, 40 minutes I'll be going down the hill in no time. But it wasn't like that."

At dinner, Onaga -- an experienced snowboarder -- encouraged Spence. A worker at the restaurant overheard their conversation. He was a snowboarding instructor and off the next day. He offered Spence help if he'd give it another shot.

This sounded reasonable. He flew from Florida to Utah because he wanted to learn a sport he became enamored with as a kid watching Shaun White and playing his video game. He saw snow for the first time in college at Illinois. He didn't try skiing or snowboarding then. This was his first chance.

So he accepted. The next day, he picked up the basics in an hour and a mild obsession was born. Spence fell for snowboarding by being able to stand up.

"He said he was going to do it. And the next day he was carving down the mountain, crushing it at snowboarding," Onaga said. "Then, the next day he was going by himself, going on courses with me, and he just didn't care. He just told himself, 'I'm going to do this. I'm not going to fall.' He made it down the whole mountain without falling. Then he started practicing jumps. Out of nowhere, you know.

"At first, I didn't think he was going to be as good as he was. I was very surprised he caught on as quick as he did. Even my second day snowboarding, I wasn't as good as his second day snowboarding. He just has a natural ability to adapt to any kind of sport or athletic thing he's doing."

The first trip extended from three days to a week. Spence -- now comfortable on a board and ready to learn how to attack powder -- went to Vail the next year. He understands that he might be a rare sight on the mountain. Snowboarding is thought of as a thin and shorter person's sport. The average skier, according to a 2014 ABC story, is under 6 feet and under 200 pounds. Snowboarders are similar.

Spence is 6-foot-1 and 307 pounds. Some of that was hiding under layers of clothing and a crouched stance, but he still stood out. Not that he noticed at first.

"Usually you see a whole bunch of small people out there and everything like that," Spence said. "A lot of the taller guys that you see, they are skiers and stuff like that. So it was, I really didn't pay attention to too many people because I was too busy trying to stand up.

"I couldn't really pay attention to what people were looking at. You got different looks, but everybody was out there having a good old time, man."

Eventually that included Spence -- at least after falling backward five or six times trying to stand and then falling forward, too. And as he was discussing his second sporting passion, teammates couldn't help but jump in.

"Damn, you went to Park City, right off the bat," defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson asked.

"Yeah, bro. That's the best place to go snowboarding, they say," Spence said.

"Yeah, but I'm saying, just for you to start," Robinson said.

"But bro, I was on the bunny hill, bro," Spence said.

By the end of his first trip, Spence was carving down blue, green and black trails -- the same ones his second trip to Vail. He's clear, though. He's still learning. Eventually, he'll do a black diamond.

His goal for this offseason is to learn how to ride switch, meaning he'd be riding opposite of his usual direction. This would allow him to be more flexible on the board and get down the mountain smoother and with more speed. It's what Onaga, whom he met soon after being drafted by Tampa Bay in 2013, had been practicing during Spence's first snowboarding foray.

After the first trip, Spence bought all his own equipment and started to convince teammates to join him. He and Onaga are already planning their trip for this offseason, heading back to where his obsession started -- Park City. As long as the powder is good, he said he might spend three weeks there.

Spence said some of Detroit's defensive linemen, including Robinson, have said they'd be interested in going. The same Robinson who questioned Park City and later said he tried snowboarding "and I gave up. Had a meeting with God. I gave up."

To which Spence asked if that's for real? Robinson said it was, but "I'll try it again."

This time, Robinson might have a teacher in Spence -- the guy who was where he was a couple years ago and who has since fallen in love with winter's snow.

^ Back to Top ^