Danny Spond's season of triumph

Originally Published: January 3, 2013
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Don Spond still remembers the voice message he received from Notre Dame's trainers in early August.

They told him his son, Fighting Irish linebacker Danny Spond, had been injured in practice and that he needed to call them as quickly as possible.

"It was very scary," Don said. "When we first talked to the trainers, they said he had a closed-head injury and bleeding on the brain. They said it was possibly career-ending and life-threatening. It was definitely scary for Mom and Dad. It was much more important than football."

After Danny, a junior from Littleton, Colo., told trainers the left side of his body was completely numb during a morning practice on Aug. 8, they weren't entirely sure what was wrong with him. They watched tape of Notre Dame's practice to see if Spond was suffering from a concussion but didn't see a head-to-head collision. They even wondered if he was having a stroke.

[+] EnlargeDanny Spond
Matt Cashore/US PresswireA former quarterback, Danny Spond (13) became a central figure of Notre Dame's defense.

"It was a normal day for me," Danny said. "It was a morning practice, and about halfway through the practice, I started noticing some tingling sensation in my face. It worked its way down the whole left side of my body. Eventually, I just lost control."

When Don talked to his son on the telephone the next day, he knew something was seriously wrong. Danny's speech was slurred, and he didn't sound like himself. Notre Dame's doctors assured him it was because of medication, but Danny's parents still feared the worst.

Don flew to Notre Dame on Aug. 10 to accompany his son to see a neurologist at the University of Michigan. By then, the numbness in Danny's face was starting to subside, and he could partially use his left arm. His left leg was still entirely numb, though. Father and son didn't say much to each other during the three-hour drive to Ann Arbor, Mich.

"It was pretty somber," Don said. "I don't think a word was really spoken. You think about words to say to someone who's feeling so much uncertainty about their future. It was very quiet. We had a lot of concern for our son."

Danny said he didn't know what to think about his future.

"It was quiet," he said. "I was nervous. I was scared. My future was going to ride on what was going to be diagnosed."

After undergoing 45 minutes of testing, Danny was given the best-possible diagnosis. The neurologist told Danny he was suffering from a severe migraine headache and that the symptoms would soon subside. He was told the condition could be controlled by medication.

"The doctor just looked down at his file and started flipping through pages, saying, 'No, no, no," Don said. "He just looked up and said, 'You're having a serious migraine.'

"To hear that it was something that could be fixed and he could play football again, it was a like a load of bricks had been lifted off my shoulders. I'm sure it was spectacular for Danny to hear."

Danny's ability to overcome the frightening episode and return to the field is what will make Monday night's Discover BCS National Championship at Sun Life Stadium even more special for him and his family. After missing the first two games while recovering, Danny has started the last 10 games at outside linebacker for the No. 1 Fighting Irish, which will play No. 2 Alabama with a BCS national championship on the line. The Irish will try to win their first national title since 1988.

"I've been extremely blessed to go from sitting on the sideline not knowing if I'd play again to [being here]," Danny said. "I'm unbelievably grateful and extremely blessed. I've learned to play the game differently ever since then. I would never say I [don't] take anything for granted; that's a cliché. But especially since that event, I've learned to enjoy each day for its worth, even outside of football. Having the ability to put a helmet on again, it's something I'll never think twice about."

Danny suffered a couple of flare-ups after his initial migraine, but his symptoms never returned once he took the field in Notre Dame's third game at Michigan State on Sept. 15.

"I had a lot of different words thrown at me, and they definitely brought their own threats and scares, but after a while I learned that I don't need to worry about anything," Danny said. "I have a God above who is going to take care of me, and that's what's most important."

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Matt Cashore/US PresswireManti Te'o is the Irish's star on defense, but he'll vouch for Spond's importance.

Even though Danny is often overshadowed by more heralded teammates such as Manti Te'o and Prince Shembo, he has been just as important to Notre Dame's success on defense, said defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. The Irish lead the country in scoring defense, allowing only 10.3 points per game.

"Danny Spond is one of the players of the year," Diaco said. "There was a moment at the beginning of the season where he was really struggling. Physically, he had an episode, and I wasn't sure if [he'd be OK]. Forget about playing football; I wasn't sure that he was going to ever have the functional life he was going to be able to have before that moment.

"To watch him battle and fight and stay positive and become the player he has become for his teammates has really been inspirational. He's a stalwart on the field, and it's really hard to make a play on him in the passing game or the running game."

What makes Danny's production even more surprising is that he played quarterback in high school. He played on special teams and was a reserve linebacker in his first two seasons at Notre Dame before moving into the starting lineup this season. He has 38 tackles with one tackle for loss, one interception and three pass breakups this season.

"For a quarterback to go to outside linebacker and be setting the edge on 300-plus-pound linemen, that takes character and courage in itself," Te'o said. "The episode he had, we were just wondering if he'd ever be able to function normally again on a daily basis. He came out like a week and a half later and said, 'I'm going to practice today.'"

Don said he never doubted his son would return to the field for Notre Dame. Danny grew up rooting for the Fighting Irish after his maternal grandfather, John Dietz, a devout Catholic from New York, introduced him to the team. Don said his son's room was decorated with Notre Dame memorabilia when he was a young boy, and the family never left home for trips without a DVD copy of "Rudy."

"Just knowing what kind of person Danny is, he has always fought back and never let anything hold him down," Don said. "His goal was always to play for Notre Dame, and he wasn't going to let this stop him either."

Dietz died at age 83 on Dec. 15, 2010, less than a month after Danny finished his freshman season with the Fighting Irish. Dietz was never able to travel to Notre Dame to watch his grandson play.

About a week ago, Danny visited his grandfather's grave at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver on the day after Christmas. He draped his No. 13 Notre Dame jersey over his grandfather's tombstone.

"It was a pretty emotional time for him," Don said. "Danny told him he'd be playing for him. He never got to see him play at Notre Dame, but I'm sure he's watching him now."

Danny, who attended Columbine High School in Littleton, wears No. 13 to honor the 13 victims of the horrific school shooting at his alma mater on April 20, 1999. His mother and father are 1977 graduates of the high school.

"Danny bleeds blue and gold for Notre Dame and blue and silver for Columbine," Don said. "His wearing No. 13 just continues the tradition. They'll never forget those 13 people. That's why he wears No. 13 -- to show those 13 people are in his heart and in his prayers."

Danny's grandfather and the memory of the 13 victims will be with him when he takes the field Monday night.

"A ring and a championship would mean a lot to everybody," Danny said. "But knowing where I came from and where I've been, it would be pretty special."

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball