Sept. 25, 2013
By: Todd Burlage
Paralysis on the left side of his body. Unrelenting fear. Endless questions with no answers. Migraine headaches severe enough to topple a fierce Notre Dame linebacker.
"I would have rather just had my head torn off than have it attached during those moments," admits Irish senior Danny Spond about his crippling migraine headache attacks. "I couldn't see. My whole left side of my body was completely numb. I can't open my eyes. My speech gets slurred. When I smile, only half of my face smiles. I lose control of my left arm. I lose control of my left leg. I wouldn't wish any of it on my worst enemy."
Just two months ago, the seemingly invincible 250-pound Irish linebacker came face-to-face with a decision that was universally obvious but still tougher than any he may ever make in his life. Migraine headaches had won the battle over Spond. Three life-changing episodes in the span of a year - not a time to be messing around.
Calling the next play was easy; accepting and executing it, less so. Spond had no choice but to forfeit his senior season and immediately retire from football, a cruel reality for one of the strongest leaders and best players on the Irish roster.
"It was obviously a tough decision and very heartfelt but it was best for me not to continue to play," says Spond, who made the decision about a week into training camp, only three weeks before his final season at Notre Dame was set to begin. "It's the deepest disappointment I have ever felt. This is not what I had planned, or anybody had planned."
But in Spond's own words, "I have come to realize that God doesn't give you anything you can't handle and this is just another way of him testing me. It's a way I may not understand for the next 30 years but it's something that I feel he believes I am strong enough to get through."
The official diagnosis is hemiplegic migraines, a rare and serious form of headache that often brings weakness or stroke-like symptoms to one side of the body, but can also trigger epileptic seizures and even coma in the most serious cases.
"Danny has suffered from a series of these migraines," says Dr. Jennifer Malcolm, D.O., Notre Dame head football team physician. "But with medication, rehabilitation, and positive attitude he should be able to avoid any long-term consequences."
Hemiplegic migraine headaches weren't even in Spond's vocabulary until August of 2012, when his first episode necessitated an immediate rush to the hospital.
"I had never had a migraine before. I didn't know what it was," explains Spond. "I was very scared, of course. I had a lot of words thrown at me that were very intimidating, that's for sure."
That first migraine attack kept Spond off the field for about four weeks and caused him to miss the first two games of last season while he worked to regain strength and movement. Down but never out, Spond returned to the team as the starting outside linebacker for the final 11 games of last season, finishing with 38 tackles, one interception ... and so much more.
"Just being able to come back and even play last season gave me a whole new perspective," Spond says. "I was able to enjoy the game more because you never know when it is going to be your last snap and that is definitely something I learned last fall. I am so grateful I was able to be part of that special season."
Spond was set in the spring to cement his place once more as the starting drop "dog" linebacker when another migraine episode - this one more intense than the first - rocked him yet again.
"I'm not sure which is worse, the pain or the fear when you're going through these migraines," Spond says. "The pain is unbearable, but the fear is just as bad of not understanding what is going on, and knowing what I will have to go through just to get back to normal functioning again, and then wondering if it is going to happen again."
Despite doctors and specialists keeping a close watch, Spond was set mentally and physically to handle training camp last month. A disciplined linebacker takes pride in hitting his mark, but the migraines delivered the hit that ultimately tackled the tackler.
"It took only about 15 minutes to spark my worst migraine to date, worse than anything I had ever had," Spond says. "It knocked me down for a good solid three weeks to a month."
Immediately back into the hospital.
After about a week, Spond carried a cane on the sideline during football practice to help keep his balance.
In a constant search for answers, Spond routinely traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., to be evaluated by one of the top neurologists in the country, and routinely returned to South Bend with more questions in - and about - his head.
Reports from the doctors were unclear. The migraines were as unpredictable as Spond's football future, and a choice had to be made.
Spond first shared his retirement decision with head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. He then announced the news to his fellow linebackers, then to the defense as a whole, and finally to the entire team in an assembly that Spond describes as the most emotional day of his life.
"I had tears in my eyes and a lot of guys came up to me with tears in their eyes as well," Spond says. "It just showed me how much support I have. It really was a testament to the university. That's why Notre Dame is the most special and honorable place to play football in the country."
Wanting to stay close to the game and teammates during his senior season, Spond remains an important presence on the sideline as a pseudo-coach to the guys who now hold down his position on Saturdays, junior Ben Councell and freshman Jaylon Smith.
With responsibilities that include pass coverage, edge protection against the run, and the occasional pass rush, the "dog" linebacker is the most complex position on the Notre Dame defense, and nobody understands it better than Danny Spond.
"I try to help teach them everything from general techniques and scheme to how to handle yourself when we travel," Spond says. "We just keep talking to each other. I wish I would have had somebody teach me the things that I can teach them. It's worked out so far. I've really embraced the role."
From star player to dedicated mentor, Danny Spond demonstrates the integrity and quality of a champion. It's all he knows. A Littleton, Colo., native and Columbine High School alum, Spond remembers the tragedy that struck his community when he was only a second-grader.
Littleton is a tight community, the type of place where nobody was left unscarred by the unthinkable loss of life.
"Growing up in Littleton and going to Columbine, there was no other place I would want to go and no other school where I would want to send my kids someday," Spond says. "It really shaped me for who I am today. I can attribute Columbine, and my experiences there, and the people that touched my life there to my faith and my family being so important to me."
Upon arriving at Notre Dame, Spond chose the No. 13 for his jersey, in reverent memorial of the 13 teachers and students who died in the 1999 shooting rampage at the high school. "I wanted to let people know those lives will never be forgotten, that's why I wore the No. 13," Spond says. "Those lives will live on for as long as I can carry their names because they were cut short. It is something I cherish and hold dear to me."
With or without a career in professional football, Danny Spond is going to excel in any path he chooses.
Set to graduate with a degree in political science, Spond wants only "to change the world for the better." Perhaps the title of Senator Spond might provide that opportunity someday?
"Now that has great ring to it. I would definitely pursue that career," Spond says. "If anything, I know how to deal with adversity better than most. I understand that everything happens for a reason, I just hope someday I'll understand what it is."