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Two prospects, one amazing friendship

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Once Noah Spence saw the tears, he realized he might have gone too far. He let his opponent -- his friend Averee Robinson -- get up off the mat and back to his feet.

Big mistake. Much like Victor Ortiz learned in his fight with Floyd Mayweather, Spence learned a valuable he needs to protect himself at all times the hard way.

"He was just looking out for me," Robinson said of his best friend, "but I ended up pinning him later in the match.

"We got into a fight over that."

That wrestling match may have taken place more than a decade ago, but Spence remembers it well. And all of the other times it's happened.

"He would cry, and I would let him up," Spence said laughing.

The fights have faded since Robinson and Spence began wrestling and playing football at 4 years old, but their bond and friendship has only gotten stronger, even as they set to part ways for a second time. Robinson will play defensive tackle for Temple next fall; Spence, well, throw all 67 BCS teams in a hat and pick, and Spence is almost certain to have a scholarship offer from that school.

Both insist that whether Spence is a three-day drive west at USC or just a three-hour drive west at Penn State, their friendship will never change.

Can't help but laugh

It was the start of one of the most heated games in Central Pennsylvania in 2011: Robinson and Susquehanna vs. Spence and Bishop McDevitt.

Susquehanna is just five minutes from Bishop McDevitt and last year, Susquehanna traveled to McDevitt and handed the Crusaders a 34-28 loss -- their last before the state championship nearly three months later. Some wondered if it signaled a changing in the guard in the area.

So when Susquehanna and McDevitt met on Sept. 23, almost a year to the day the Indians beat the Crusaders a year ago, Robinson and Spence walked out to midfield representing their teams as captains. Robinson left the sideline and calmly walked toward the 50 with a stern look on his face. Spence did the same.

By the time they reached the hash marks, Robinson and Spence were both grinning from ear to ear, trying to keep themselves from breaking out into laughter.

"We were on the field and we're supposed to be mad at everyone," Spence said. "I see him and I start laughing. I can't be serious around him."

Robinson claims it was Spence who first broke his game face.

"Noah's making a joke saying like, 'What are we doing tonight?' and I'm trying to stay serious," Robinson said. "But I can't because it's Noah."

(McDevitt coach Jeff Weachter calls Spence a "jokester," so Robinson's version is probably a little closer to identifying the real culprit.)

After McDevitt's 28-21 win, Robinson and Spence met up and spent the majority of the weekend together. Usually either Friday night or Saturday night, one will sleep over at the other's house.

"It's not uncommon to come down and see Noah laying on the couch," Adrian Robinson Sr. said.

Robinson and Spence won't call one of their other friends Aaron Moyer a third wheel, but sometimes it can't help but feel like that.

"Every time they see each other, it's like they never been apart," said Moyer, Robinson's teammate at Susquehanna. "They always pick up right where they left off."

Friendship formed on a wrestling mat

Robinson and Spence were never supposed to be in Bobby Martin's wrestling class. They were only 4 years old, far were too young.

Martin probably wasn't supposed to be running the wrestling program either. A former football player and pee wee coach, Martin, who had no experience as a wrestler, helped set up the wrestling program to keep his pee wee players who weren't playing basketball in shape.

On the first day of the newly formed class, Martin was having the kids run. Included among them was Adrian Robinson, Averee's older brother of four years and now one of the country's best defensive ends at Temple. Averee's mother had him with her in the car, and he was driving her nuts. He wouldn't behave and sit still, so she asked if he could practice with the other wrestlers.

Martin was reluctant. "I wasn't running a day care," he said.

It wasn't long for Martin to see that Robinson had some serious talent as a wrestler. Spence and his adopted brother Tariq would join Robinson as 5-year-old wrestlers, and the three of them dominated the 6-and-under heavyweight division in central Pennsylvania.

"We always had first, second and third. We were going to elite wrestling tournaments. All we taught them was the headlock," said Martin, who still sees the Robinson and Spence and often takes them to Harrisburg Senators baseball games.

It was on those mats in Martin's classes that Robinson's and Spence's friendship began to blossom -- even if it was done in the oddest of ways.

"Me and Noah were always the same weight," Robinson said. "We always went back and forth in wrestling. We got into fights on the mat."

Adrian Sr. remembers those matches and can only laugh, because he suspects Martin slyly fostered that competitive atmosphere.

"(Martin) would teach Averee a move and then teach Noah how to beat that move," Adrian said. "Averee would learn a hip toss, and he would teach Noah how to beat it. So all their matches were amazing, because someone knows a move and the other knows how to beat it."

The two took that physical nature to the football field -- except they began combining that power and brutality and using it on opposing offensive lineman. As 10-year olds on Susquehanna's pony league team, Robinson and Spence wreaked havoc from the line for a defense that didn't allow a single point all season.

"We got the jacket to prove it," said Greg Spence, Noah's father and the defensive coordinator that year.

Parting ways, but never splitting up

That would be one of the last seasons Robinson and Spence would play together. The two would play in different leagues before reaching high school, when they faced a difficult decision: go to Susquehanna or McDevitt, a private school with a long history of putting players at the BCS level.

It was a tough decision, but both did what was best for him. Robinson stayed at Susquehanna; Spence enrolled at McDevitt.

"I didn't want him to," Robinson said of Spence's decision. "I was trying to convince him; I was telling the coaches to convince him. ... I know it was best for him and I like that he's made it and the future he's made for himself."

It's not as if Robinson didn't think about following his friend to McDevitt. But football wasn't the deciding factor for Robinson. It was what McDevitt couldn't offer that made it a relatively easy decision for Robinson.

"Bishop McDevitt, before when I was a freshman, didn't have a wrestling program. That pushed McDevitt out of the picture," Robinson said.

It was a good decision, as Robinson won the state title at 285 pounds as a junior, which he calls his proudest moment to date.

Robinson will have to give up wrestling next year when he enrolls at Temple to play defensive tackle. Spence says he could end up at Temple, but the Owls' chances seem slim when considering the other offers Spence has.

The best case scenario in terms of the distance between the two would be if Spence went to either Maryland or Penn State, which are both just a few hours away and were among his early leaders. He once had a top seven, but said he is back to wide open now.

The reality that the two will no longer be just a few blocks away from each other in Susquehanna in a few months is a topic they try to avoid but can't help but talk about.

"We'll be riding around the car and we'll talk about it. It's a sad conversation," Robinson said.

"It's hard, he's been like my brother forever. To not have him around ..." Spence said before stopping. "But were gonna talk a lot on the phone and stuff and Facebook and everything."

In other words, Spence and Robinson will remain best friends.
For 13 years, the two have been just that.

"I don't remember life without Noah," Robinson said.

And he isn't planning for life without him.

Jared Shanker covers Midwest recruiting. He can be reached at jshankerespn@gmail.com.