By Joseph Santoliquito/CBS
HARRISBURG, PA (CBS)—His teammates and coaches left him alone. They all knew better than to even talk to him.
Noah Spence had shut off, sitting there in his personal cocoon. Head tilted up against the bus window, he was locked into the pounding music of his iPod, muting the white noise around him. He sat there looking through the top of his eyelids at the celebration going on next to him, rejoicing over something he thought should be his.
He sat there and blamed himself. The player that wants perfection — that demands it — didn’t get it this night. Not by his definition.
Spence was plagued by a play. By a few inches. A few measly inches. A tear dribbled down his face, as he agonized over what he could have done differently. What he could have done to make it perfect.
The 6-4, 230-pound Bishop McDevitt (Harrisburg, Pa.) defensive end blankly sat conveniently forgetting his three sacks and his forced fumble. He somehow couldn’t remember the six hurries, and the fact that he was probably the best player on a field filled with exceptional players.
No, all Spence could recall was an incredible second-down play that he made. Or, in his recurring thoughts, didn’t make.
Allentown Central Catholic was toting around the PIAA Class AAA state championship trophy like it was a conquered Roman standard. Spence’s eyes were forced to swallow the scene, since McDevitt’s bus was parked right next to ACC’s.
Spence can’t erase the vision.
Perhaps that’s why it won’t be a healthy experience for any offensive tackle that lines up against Spence this coming season. The senior-to-be is the No. 1-rated defensive end in the nation by MaxPreps/CBS, the No. 4 overall player in the country in the MaxPreps Class of 2012 Top 100, and can be quite arguably the nation’s best high school player by the time he’s finished his senior year.
But it’s the high-octane demands Spence has always placed on himself that have enabled him to reach this point. He demands perfection. He once cried over a report card in third grade, and his father Greg wondered why. It was because the straight A’s he received were interrupted by two B-pluses.
More recently, Spence unjustly blamed himself over the Pennsylvania Class AAA state championship loss to ACC. The Vikings pulled out a dramatic 28-27 victory in the game’s last two minutes. Spence was a one-man nightmare to the vaunted Vikings offense, stirring chaos all night. On the eventual game-winning drive, Spence batted down a pass on ACC’s second-and-13 from its own 12-yard line. It looked as if his play would lead to a state title for McDevitt, the same high school that produced Ricky Watters and Shady McCoy.
It brought the Crusaders two plays away from a state championship. It wound up working in reverse for ACC.
Because on third-and-13, ACC’s brilliant quarterback Brendan Nosovitch attacked the opposite side of Spence, peeling back to hit seldom-used tight end Jack Sandherr, who drifted open on a designed play called “Special Al,” for a 70-yard strike to the McDevitt 18-yard line. The following play, Nosovitch cleaved through the middle of the McDevitt defense for the game-winning score — and the state championship.
“I always want perfection with everything, I mean everything,” said Spence, a four-year starter. “It’s why I pour over game film before we play to study tendencies. When I got home the night of that state title game, I couldn’t sleep. I felt like I did so much wrong. Everyone else told me I played well, but I didn’t want to hear it.”
What’s wrong with a great player wanting to be great on every play? It’s rare to see that even at the professional level, where high-energy superstars are sometimes prone to take a sporadic play off.
“I still think about that last series of the state championship,” Spence said. “I know I knocked the one pass down, but I should have intercepted it. That’s what still bothers me. I should have grabbed that pass and taken it in for a touchdown. That play goes through my head every day. It’s why I blame myself for us not winning the state title. I do, a little bit. It was a couple of inches, but if I intercept that pass, I could have ended the game and sealed everything.
“It’s why I didn’t talk to anyone after the game. I got on the team bus, and there next to us is Allentown. We were parked so close to each other, I could see how they were celebrating. It’s why I want to get back to the state title game. I want to celebrate a state championship like that before I graduate.”
Every major college coach in the country knows landing Spence could help towards facilitating a national championship for themselves. The list of schools is long and distinguished: Penn State, Maryland, Notre Dame, Tennessee, USC, Miami, Florida, Nebraska, Arkansas, Alabama, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Illinois, Iowa and many, many others have expressed interest and have already offered scholarships.
The physical tools are certainly there. Spence runs a sub-4.5 second 40-yard dash, can bench press 225 pounds 17 times and squats 225 for 50-rep intervals. He’s looking to play next season up around 245-250, with his ideal college playing weight at roughly 257.
“Me and my father always had that goal weight in mind for college,” he says.
Spence, who is coming off a junior year in which he had 23 sacks, 34 tackles for losses and two scoops for scores in 15 games, will pare his list to 10 by August, he said. With a 3.6 GPA at a high-academic school like McDevitt, Spence will have his choice of wherever he wants to go. He plans on making his official announcement at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 7, 2012.
None of this avalanche of attention has caught McDevitt coach Jeff Weachter by surprise. He knew this day was coming when Spence was a freshman.
“I have to calm Noah down in practice sometimes because he’s going to kill one of my young quarterbacks,” Weachter said, laughing. “But we knew Noah was something special his freshman year. We’re in shorts and T-shirts doing drills, and we’re supposed to be going at half speed. Jameel Poteat is a sophomore then, and Jameel was always a great blocker. Matt Johnson is the quarterback. I blow the whistle. Matt takes the snap, and before I know it, Noah runs over Jameel, who smacks into Matt and I have everyone in my lap. Noah doesn’t know how to go at half speed. Not even then. How can you yell at a freshman for that? But I knew then he was something special.”
What sets Spence apart, other than his work ethic and insatiable desire for perfection, is his speed. After McDevitt’s 23-0 season-opening victory last year over Gateway, Gators’ offensive line coach Matt Morgan, a former three-year starter at Pitt, came up to Weachter and told him Spence’s first two steps are faster and more explosive than anyone he ever went up against at Pitt.
Since the state championship game on Dec. 17, Spence has grown a half-inch and added 15 pounds.
“There are plays when sometimes Noah isn’t exactly where you want, and he just makes plays,” Weachter said. “Noah has an ability to bend; and he bends better than most high school kids. You can see the kid being a Top 10 pick in the NFL draft one day. Above all else, Noah’s humble. He’s just a great kid you have to root for.”
Spence’s oak-strong foundation comes from home.
Greg and Helen Spence, Noah’s parents, are selfless giving people. So much so that they have taken in four adoptive boys and made them their own. They were raised along with Noah, after the Spence family moved from Philadelphia when Noah was 4.
Noah could be Greg’s Mini-Me. Greg, at a mountainous 6-4, 280 pounds, could come off as intimidating to those who don’t know him, though he is really an overgrown teddy bear, especially with his children. He has no problems being affectionate with them. A firm-handshake guy, he has an engaging, welcoming smile. Greg, a high school star at John Bartram with family still in Philadelphia, played at North Carolina State, where he attained his degree in criminal justice and Helen obtained her graduate degree in social work from Temple.
The Spences raised their children with the first priority being education. It’s why Greg is looking at the graduation rate of the schools showing interest in Noah, balancing that with how many NFL players those schools produce.
But the decision will ultimately be Noah’s.
Like Weachter, Greg, too, found out something about his son at an early age.
“We’re really blessed with Noah,” said Greg, a juvenile probation officer in Harrisburg. “He was 4 when our first foster child came into our lives. Eventually, we adopted the boys. They’re my sons, Noah’s brothers. It takes a special young man to watch his parents share their love and nurturing with other children. Noah’s reaped the benefits of having that kind of heart. I deal with a lot of kids, from many different backgrounds. They can go in different directions over different things. I don’t know if there are a lot of kids who could have Noah’s kind heart and grasp for sharing. That’s just Noah.”
And Noah will continue to work on being perfect.