FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It’s one of those Notre Dame stories that makes you think the Big Guy Above might really be a Notre Dame fan, or at least have a passing interest in the Golden Domers.
At a school that has turned symbols and stories of inspiration into a cottage industry, Danny Spond is the genuine article. He went from being mysteriously partially paralyzed to being a starting linebacker on a potential national title team.
No. 13 might be unlucky, but Spond isn’t.
He is fortunate that he will be in a uniform with that numeral Monday night at Sun Life Stadium, playing for the top-ranked Fighting Irish against defending national champion Alabama in the BCS national championship game as Notre Dame attempts to complete its 13th unblemished season.
It was a morning practice on Aug. 8, about the time the drudgery of camp sets in. Spond, a converted quarterback from Littleton, Colo., was competing for the “dog” linebacker spot in Notre Dame’s 3-4 defense. Halfway through the session, he got a headache.
The jackhammering in his head intensified. Then he felt tingling in his face. The pins-and-needles sensation traveled down the entire left side of his 6-foot-2-inch, 248-pound frame . . .
“Then, I just kind of lost control,” said Spond.
He went numb on his left side. He was rushed off the field, into an ambulance, and to the hospital. It was thought that he had suffered a concussion or, worse, a stroke.
“I was petrified. I had never had anything like that happen to me before,” said Spond. “I knew something wasn’t right, obviously. I told the trainers right away, and they took great care of me.”
Spond spent a few days in the hospital, where he still struggled to get regular movement in his left leg. He missed two games. He was in pigskin purgatory.
Eventually Notre Dame trainers sent Spond to Ann Arbor, Mich., of all places, to see a neurologist. Spond was diagnosed with a semi-hemiplegic migraine, a migraine headache so severe that it causes pain that can result in part of the body shutting down.
Spond didn’t want to be the modern-day Gipper. He didn’t want his teammates to win one for him. He was determined to win with them.
Five weeks after his incident and 60 miles from where he got a career reprieve in Ann Arbor, he made his first career start against Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich.
He has started every game since, finishing Notre Dame’s 12-0 season with 38 tackles, four passes defended, one interception, and one new lease on football life.
“I’ve been extremely blessed to go from sitting on the sideline and not knowing if I’ll play again to sitting on the stage with you,” Spond said Thursday. “So I’m unbelievably grateful and extremely blessed. I’ve learned to play the game differently since then.
“I would never say I take anything for granted. It’s cliché. But since that event, it’s just learning to enjoy each day for what it’s worth, even outside of football. Then having the ability to put a helmet on again is just something I’ll never think twice about.”
Spond will never be confused with Notre Dame linebacker extraordinaire Manti Te’o, a certain first-round NFL pick; or mastodon nose guard Louis Nix, the immovable object at the center of a defense that has allowed only two rushing touchdowns; or sophomore sackmaster Stephon Tuitt.
But Spond is no Rudy, either. He’s a leader on a Fighting Irish defense that was the stingiest in the country this season, allowing just 10.3 points per game.
“When you see someone like that who almost has everything taken from them to now be able to go out and do what you love to do, you can see he is very passionate about being out there,” said safety Matthias Farley. “That is infectious.
“He doesn’t talk that much. He’s not super vocal. But you know Danny Spond is going to do everything exactly the way it’s supposed to be done, and he’s going to give you everything he’s got every play. To have someone like that who has been through what he’s been through this year, it’s inspiring to be around.”
Spond is a source of inspiration for another group of people.
Spond is a 2010 graduate of Columbine High School. Yes, that Columbine.
After the shocking 1999 massacre that took the lives of 12 students and one teacher, Columbine became synonymous with school shooting sprees.
Spond chose No. 13 at Notre Dame to honor the Columbine victims.
“That’s who I play for,” said Spond. “I knew who had gotten me to this position and who had supported me, and without a doubt, that was Columbine. I wear 13 with pride.”
Spond was reluctant to speak about the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
“It’s hard to explain, to even put into words stuff like that,” said Spond, who was in second grade when the Columbine shooting happened. “I don’t have much to say about it, other than time will heal. It did our community. It will theirs.”
Spond said that doctors have never been able to tell him what caused such a severe migraine. He is on medication and hasn’t had any further issues.
The only headache he has is the one preparing for Alabama’s thumping offense, which set a school record for points (500) and offensive touchdowns (62) behind an offensive line the Chicago Bears would be jealous of. The Crimson Tide average 5.6 yards per carry, and running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon both went over 1,000 yards.
These are two of the bluebloods of college football. It could be two of the black-and-blue bloods Monday night.
Spond started his season with head-banging. Now, he’ll end it happily banging heads with ’Bama.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.