Noah Spielman, right, left UT shortly after arriving on campus.
WHEATON, Ill. — A scholarship to a Division I school is the golden ticket for most high school football players.
Noah Spielman had everything necessary to earn one. Spielman's skill as a defensive lineman earned the attention of recruiters, and he, like many high schoolers, found instant rapport with University of Toledo coach Matt Campbell and his staff. A good student from a strong family with deep football ties, there was no red flag on Spielman. Sign him up.
Less than a year into his time as a Rocket, Spielman already was working his way up the depth chart. He wasn't afraid of the never-ending work. He adapted to school just fine. He loved the coaches and made friends with his teammates.
Yet something about Division I football didn't fulfill him.
“I loved Toledo and I loved the guys there,” Noah said, “but I just didn't feel right being there.”
For a Spielman in Ohio, this was a sharp left turn.
Indeed, the Division I scholarship had meant everything to his father, Chris Spielman, who had no doubts at age 18 that football was his calling. Football was his whole life. A nationally recognized high school career turned into an offer to play for Earle Bruce at Ohio State, where he was a two-time consensus All-American and an eventual inductee in the College Football Hall of Fame.
That led to the National Football League, where he was a three-time All-Pro for the Detroit Lions, one of the most respected players in the league.
Noah's uncle, Rick, is the general manager of the Minnesota Vikings.
Living in Columbus suburb Upper Arlington, mere miles from where his father had starred in college, there was a certain pressure on Noah. The consensus expectation was that Noah would play Division I football, which Toledo offered him a chance to do.
But he didn't choose what he actually wanted.
“I think that was the one thing I misjudged when I was choosing a school,” Noah said. “I was like, 'Oh, I wonder if I go here, will this person be happy? What would they think?'
“I don't think I ever thought about myself and would I really like it here or not.”
Chris thought the same thing.
“I think he got excited about getting a scholarship to prove something not to himself, but to me,” Chris said. “It's always been, I think, hard for him to be my son in the sense of a football world.”
After the Rockets' regular season concluded, Noah had come to terms with his belief that he needed to be Noah and not anybody else. A big part of Noah's life is his devout Christianity.
An option that gave him both football and an emphasis on faith was Wheaton College, a small liberal arts school in Illinois. A high school teammate of Noah's already played at Wheaton, a Division III school with an enrollment of 2,400.
Applicants to the school must submit a 500-word statement of faith to even be considered. Though the football team cannot offer scholarships, it is consistently competitive. Winning still is important to the school — longtime coach Mike Swider pulled his hat over his face describing an agonizing playoff loss last season — but its value system takes precedent over everything else.
That appealed to Noah.
“I've never used the word ‘better' in all my life,” Swider said. “We're just different. We're not better than anybody. I'm serious. We're just a different option.”
Wheaton recruited Noah in high school because he fit into its miniscule recruiting pool of skilled players who are devout in their faith and academically talented. When Noah called in December and expressed interest in possibly transferring, Swider's heart jumped.
Swider knew he had a player, but more importantly to him, a two-way relationship that he thought would be a perfect fit.
“That's a hard thing to find, and when you find one, it's a glorious day,” Swider said. “Noah fits, man. We love him to death.”
Then came the really tough part — telling his father he wanted to give up his Division I scholarship and transfer to a school at which tuition plus room and board costs more than $40,000 per year.
Chris made him earn it.
“I asked him, 'Are you quitting? Are you letting Coach Campbell down?' I was asking him all these hard questions because I wanted him to stand up for what he believed in and his convictions,” Chris said. “ I wanted him to not let me talk him out of it. When he didn't, I knew [Wheaton was] where he belonged.”
Noah arrived in time to go on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic with his teammates and, in one semester, said he feels like he has been at Wheaton for years.
In the end, Noah found at Wheaton what every college student wants: a challenge, a community, and a sense of belonging.
It's without a doubt a different college experience from his father's, but that's just fine with both of them.
“The one thing you want is your child to be happy, and for them to be motivated and passionate about something in their lives,” Chris said. “I think my son finally became a man when he looked me in the eyes without flinching and said, 'I'm not you. Football isn't everything to me. This is what I need to do.' When he said that to me, I knew [Noah's late mother] Stefanie and I did a good job.”
Noah doesn't know what he'll do after college, but he is sure he has found the correct route.
It's uncertain, and that's fine, too.
For now, he has found where he belongs.
“I'm just trying to make my way,” Noah said. “We'll see where God takes me.”