NOTRE DAME — This weekend has been circled on Danny Spond’s calendar for four years.
The Littleton, Colo., native first noted Notre Dame’s trip to Air Force his freshman year, when the projected schedule showed the Irish would be playing an hour south of his hometown on Oct. 26, 2013.
Spond’s visions of playing in front of family and friends were cut short in August, when the senior linebacker was hit with another bout of hemiplegic migraines, a rare type of headaches that can cause paralysis. Faced with these chronic, severe migraines, Spond was forced to retire from football.
The 6-foot-1.5, 248-pound starting linebacker was suddenly hobbled. He even had to use a cane in the days following his migraine attack in August.
“The last episode was the worst physical-wise,” he said. “I still hadn’t gained control in the left side of my body at that point. It’s tough to deal with as a 21-year-old.”
Spond first suffered from a paralyzing headache in August 2012. He was hospitalized and missed two games for the Irish before rallying back to play the remainder of the 2012 schedule. There would be no heart-warming comeback story this time. Spond knew if he kept playing, he’d be gambling with his life.
“Initially, it was very difficult, as anyone could imagine, a very hard time,” Spond said. “I told myself I had two options in this. I could give in, let this beat me, let this define me. Or I could beat it. The way I was going to do that is give all I had to this team.”
Unable to play and unwilling to leave, Spond helped the only way he could. He’s become something of a student-coach, especially for his replacement, freshman Jaylon Smith.
“He’s done a great job of handling the transition, which, as you know, for somebody that has played football all his career and now in his senior year has it taken away, now he’s on the other side of it, he’s been great,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Spond. “His coaching has been more of a communicator and translator, if you will, of information. He doesn’t sit in the coaching room breaking down film but he’s at every practice. And he travels with us. He’s on the sideline. Just been a great mentor to our linebackers.”
Smith says Spond is constantly chirping in his ear, constantly helping Smith refine his game. When Smith comes off the field, Spond is the first person to greet him, dishing out praise or constructive criticism.
“Danny’s been the best,” Smith said. “He knows the position like no one else, other than (defensive coordinator) Coach (Bob) Diaco. No one knows it better than him. He’s been there for me, helped me out any way he can.”
Spond said there isn’t much to teach Smith physically — the blue-chip freshman from Fort Wayne is already an incredible, versatile athlete — but he does hope to give Smith an upper hand in the cognitive aspect of the game. It helps too, Spond said, that Smith is such a willing pupil.
“He’s twice the athlete I ever was, that’s for sure, so my main goal to help him reach his potential is to get the mental side of the game,” Spond said. “He’s just a freshman and it takes a couple years of experience to really learn the game, so I’m hoping to shave off some of that time.”
The product of Smith’s natural gifts and Spond’s lessons welded together perfectly against USC when Smith’s perfect linebacker drop on Nelson Agholor set up the freshman for his first interception of his collegiate career.
“That’s a coaching high right there,” Spond said of Smith’s interception. “That was an interception for myself.”
Spond will take the field at Falcon Stadium on Saturday, even if not in the way he initially imagined. He’ll be a coach, not a player, but he may have found a calling in his new role.
“This has been exciting for me,” he said. “I’m trying to make the best of this year. Everything happens for a reason, so if this is my first step in a long coaching career ... Maybe one day I’ll be a head coach at Notre Dame.”