Notre Dame football: LB Spond reluctantly hangs up his jersey

Eric Hansen

SOUTH BEND — The man who wore jersey No. 13 for three seasons to never forget the tragedy his hometown transcended will put away that symbol of strength — and football — for good.

Senior outside linebacker Danny Spond, in an emotional address to his Notre Dame football teammates after practice Saturday, announced he had come to a decision that a medical condition has finally truncated that particular dream.

That, after the 6-foot-2, 248-pound Littleton, Colo., product hobbled around the two-hour-plus workout as a spectator in a sweatsuit, leaning on a cane for balance and support. He entered August training camp and participated in early workouts as ND’s No. 1 option at the drop (outside) linebacker, after starting 11 games and making 38 tackles there in 2012.

“The specifics for me to stand up here and get into them are extremely complicated, relative to his medical condition,” Irish fourth-year head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday, 14 days away from the team’s season opener with Temple.

“So I’ll leave that up to his doctors and his family and Danny himself to give a full explanation of the reasons.”

Kelly said Spond and his family were expected to release a statement early next week.

“What was pretty apparent is that it was an emotional decision, and it didn’t come without a lot of thought,” Kelly said. “He spent the day speaking to a lot of specialists. His family was here. So this was not a decision that came easy.

“He loves his teammates, but I think what’s most important is he did what was in the best interests for his future, and he’s got a bright future. His immediate (situation) is that he wants to be with the team. And his teammates were excited to hear that he’s going to be with us every day. He’ll travel with us. He’ll help coach.”

The top of the depth chart at his old position now is co-occupied by junior Ben Councell, a 6-5, 254-pounder whom ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco dubbed the most improved player on his unit last spring, and 6-3, 230-pound freshman Jaylon Smith, the highest-rated defensive prospect to sign with the Irish in two decades.

“They’re both going to play a lot,” Kelly said.

Sophomore Romeo Okwara will now cross-train at both outside linebacker spots, while sophomore safety John Turner took a few reps at Spond’s old position.

The drop linebacker — with its deep array of pass-coverage responsibilities, edge-setting run duties and an occasional pass-rushing role — has been described by many as the most unforgiving and complex position in the Irish defensive scheme.

“When it comes to coaching, if we make it that complicated that I can’t get Jaylon Smith on the field, we’re not really good coaches.” Kelly said. “It’s that simple.”

Spond came to ND from Columbine High School as a decorated prep quarterback destined to play some other position in college. What was a forgone conclusion in his mind is that wherever he lined up, Spond would wear No. 13 in honor of the 13 victims in the 1999 Columbine shootings.

Spond was a second-grader in Littleton when Columbine High students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on 34 people in the school at random. Their spree ended in a double suicide.

"I knew who had gotten me to this position and supported me, and, without a doubt, that was Columbine and everything,” Spond said back in January in the days leading up to ND’s BCS National Championship Game loss to Alabama. “So I wear the 13 with pride.

"I went to Columbine High School and was a part of that history. (The tragedy) brought us together, brought the community together and really built a society and an area that really takes care of each other."

Spond initially landed at inside linebacker his freshman season at Notre Dame, then found a home at outside linebacker. But last August, just as Spond was ascending to the top of the depth chart, his career was feared over.

He sustained migraines so relentless and so severe that he lost all motor skills on the left side of his body for two days and was hospitalized for three. A few weeks later, he was back on the field, making four tackles in his first career start — a 20-3 pummeling of Michigan State in game 3 of a 12-0 regular season.

He never took for granted his second chance at football or life.

"Danny Spond's like a brother to me,” Irish outside linebacker Prince Shembo said after hearing Spond say he was walking away from his playing career on Saturday. “When he told us — me emotionally — I felt it.

“I'm still going to be here for him. He's very intelligent, very smart. He lives his life in the right way, so I know God has a plan for him."

Senior linebacker Danny Spond has announced he will give up football for medical reasons. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN