Notre Dame football: Re-Sponding to injury

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - He had circled this game in his mind as long ago as his freshman season, when Danny Spond wasn’t sure if he’d end up an inside linebacker, outside linebacker or quite possibly something else at Notre Dame.

But the Littleton, Colo., product knew some faraway day, he’d be back to show off to his home state who he had become.

Just 66 miles away from the tragedy-tempered, close-knit community where Spond starred in high school as a quarterback, was good enough as a place-kicker that he nailed a 46-yarder for Columbine High in a game, and where his only loss in 78 games in youth football was one in which he sat out with an injury, the Irish (5-2) take on Air Force (1-6) in Colorado Springs on Saturday.

The 6-foot-2, 248-pound senior will be on the trip, free from the debilitating hemoplegic migraines that sent him both to the best doctors on this part of the planet and deep inside himself, groping for answers each of the past two Augusts. But he returns this time as an ex-football player. For good.

“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you I was walking off the field in tears knowing that this might be it, because football seemed to have something to do with (the migraines returning),” Spond said of the third day of training camp in August – the last time he suited up for so much as a practice.

A couple of weeks would pass before, as he leaned on a cane he needed then for balance and strength, he announced to his team and the world that this time there was no miraculous reversal as there had been the previous August. In 2012, weeks after suffering stroke-like symptoms caused by the migraines, Spond jumped back into the Irish starting lineup and helped fuel ND’s run to the BCS National Championship Game and its first No. 1 ranking in two decades.

After a couple of weeks living in the “why me?” stage, Spond came to terms with a destiny that so diverted from his dreams.

“I would say initially it was very difficult, as anyone could imagine, a very emotional time, a very hard time for me and my family,” Spond said of his decision to give up playing football 29 games and 52 tackles into a college career that was still ascending. “But I told myself, ‘I have two options in this. I can either give in and let this beat me, let this define me, or I can beat it and overcome it. The way I was going to do that was to give all I have for this team.’

“They gave me so much. This university has given me so much. It was my job to give back any way I could.”

So he became a student coach, tutoring his successors – junior Ben Councell and freshman starter Jaylon Smith. Spond is in every meeting, at every practice, makes every road trip and is in their ears during every game.

“We’re talking the whole game,” he said. “I can imagine they get a little annoyed with me sometimes, but that’s a good thing.”

Trying to figure out the next step is a good thing, too, but a difficult one for the political science major who will graduate in May.

“I’m a leader. I’m a born leader,” he said. “So whether it’s politics or government or the next President of the United States, I’m just waiting to see.”

Or a future in coaching?

“I might have,” he said. “This has been exciting for me. I’m trying to make the best of this year, and everything happens for a reason. If this is my first step in a long coaching career or something or maybe one day being the head coach at Notre Dame, that could be an awesome step.”

Physically, Spond hasn’t had an episode with the migraines since he gave up football and he’s on a regular medication schedule to keep it that way.

“I stay away from anything that could possibly shake my head around quite a bit or bang it around,” he said. “Other than that, it’s a pretty normal day today.”

With normal emotions of wishing things could be different.

“Each week it gets a little harder, I’ve found out, (not being able to go out and play),” he said. “It’s hard. But I’ve accepted this. I realized (playing football) was my plan. It’s not what God had in store for me, so falling back on that kind of helps me find peace with all of this.”

There will always be a part of him that will be No. 13, though, perhaps even more so this Saturday. Spond wore the No. 13 as a tribute to the 13 victims in the Columbine High shootings in his hometown in 1999, when Spond was a second-grader.

“He's done a great job of handling the transition for somebody that has played football all his career and now in his senior year has it taken away,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “Hasn't missed a day, hasn't missed a trip. He spoke at the pep rally (in Dallas) and after the pep rally, I think he had 10 job offers. He's an amazing young man.”

Rees update

More than 24 hours and some anxious moments for Kelly have passed before quarterback Tommy Rees was cleared to practice this week.

If the senior would have had his way, he would have been cleared Saturday night, shortly after exiting in the third quarter of Notre Dame’s 14-10 victory over USC with what Kelly described as a neck strain.

“I was pushing to get back in the game,” Rees admitted Wednesday while declaring himself ready to start against Air Force.

“It wasn’t the best decision to make, so I respect what the training staff and the doctors do, and ultimately they’re the experts and they know what they’re doing. So I’m not go-ing to question them, but I was definitely lobbying to get myself back out there.”

Rees said he didn’t get as many practice reps as usual on Tuesday, but expected that to pick up as the week progressed.

“I got the amount of reps where I felt comfortable with what we were doing and felt like I could develop some timing,” he said. “I think the coaches did a good job of giving me important reps and, when I’m not in, making sure I’m mentally taking a check of what’s going on.”

Rees didn’t even take time off Monday, when the team had a community service function at the South Bend Center for the Homeless.

“A big thing is getting back here and showing the guys I was OK and that I was going to be ready to go and work this week,” Rees said. “And that’s something I was really adamant about, being back out there with the team.

“I didn’t want to take too much time off, because as a leader and as a guy other guys look up to, it’s important for me to be out there and playing. I take a lot of pride in that.”

Though he had to give up football for medical reasons, linebacker Danny Spond remains very much a part of the Irish. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

WHO: Notre Dame (5-2) vs. Air Force (1-6)

WHEN: 5 p.m. EDT Saturday

WHERE: Falcon Stadium; Colorado Springs, Colo.

TV: CBS Sports Network

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: ND favored by 20