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Football: Danny Spond’s new role with the Irish

Mike Monaco | Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sixty-seven different players have seen action for Notre Dame this season. The Irish have 27 coaches.

Senior Danny Spond is neither player nor coach, yet he’s both. He’s a player, but he’s not playing. He’s coaching, but he’s not a coach.

But to Irish head coach Brian Kelly, defining Spond is easy.

“He’s an amazing young man,” Kelly said Tuesday.

The senior from Littleton, Colo., was forced to retire during training camp in August due to another bout of hemiplegic migraines, a rare form of headaches that can even cause paralysis in one side of the body. Spond himself needed a cane initially because he hadn’t gained control and didn’t have enough strength in his left side.

Spond’s first encounter with the migraines came before the 2012 season. He was hospitalized Aug. 8, 2012, and could not move the left side of his body. After missing the first two games of the season, Spond not only returned to the team but also returned to the starting lineup. The ‘Dog’ linebacker started the final 11 games and totaled 39 tackles.

Spond endured his second episode of migraines in the spring but recovered and readied himself for the fall.

But on the third day of camp, Spond knew his career could be over.

“It was in practice,” the senior recalled. “We were just going about our daily practice and such, doing the regular linebacker drills and contact stuff. Quickly, shortly after that, into our practice, it came on.

“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you I was walking off the field with tears knowing that this might be it because football seemed to have something to do with it.”

Spond did walk away from the game. And as the 21-year old noted on Wednesday, the 2013 season would have been his 17th year playing football.

“Initially, it was very difficult, as anyone could imagine,” he said. “It was a very emotional time a very hard time for me and my family.”

After coming to grips with his situation, Spond realized the different routes he could take.

“I told myself I had two options in this,” he said. “I can either give in and let this beat me and let it define me. Or I can beat it and overcome it. The way that I was gonna do that was give it all I have for this team.”

So with those two options in front of him, Spond carved out a personal role, somewhere between player and coach. When deciding to make his retirement public in August, Spond sat down with Kelly and Irish assistant head coach, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Bob Diaco. Spond laid out the situation and told his coaches he was done playing football.

“But then in the next sentence, ‘Don’t forget about me,’ is what I told them,” Spond said. “I want to be with this team as much as I can, whatever that means, if it’s speaking at pep rallies, or coaching like I have been every day. This University has given me so much. I feel like I owe it to do what I am.”

What Spond is doing is part coach, part player. He attends every meeting and practice with his teammates and does “everything besides putting pads on.” He sometimes wears a headset during games and reports back to Diaco during practice, but he doesn’t sit in on coaches’ meetings.

“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,” Kelly said. “He’s been upbeat. He’s been positive, coaching, if you will. 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, in particular [freshman] Jaylon [Smith] and [junior] Ben [Councell].”

Smith and Councell entered training camp below Spond on the depth chart. But Spond’s retirement forced the two inexperienced players – who, before the season, had a combined 10 total career tackles between them – into action. Smith has assumed the starting ‘Dog’ linebacker position, but Councell has played regularly as well, notching seven tackles.

“If Ben’s in there, [Jaylon’s] standing with me the whole time and when Jaylon’s in there, Ben is with me,” Spond said. “We’re talking the whole game. I can imagine they get a little annoyed with me sometimes but that’s a good thing.”

The highly-touted Smith came to Notre Dame and was expected to see time but not start over Spond. ESPN’s No. 7 player in the nation coming out of high school, however, has shone at his outside linebacker spot. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound frosh ranks fifth on the Irish with 31 tackles and has also recorded 3.5 tackles for loss and an interception, while learning from his mentor.

“Danny’s been the best,” Smith said. “He knows the position like no one else, other than coach Diaco. No one knows it better. He’s really just been there for me, helping me out anyway he can to where I can be successful.”

Spond, who played sparingly as a freshman and sophomore before bursting onto the scene as a junior, said it can take years to fully learn the defensive system.

“Jaylon’s a tremendous athlete,” Spond said. “It’s been fun to work with him this year. He’s twice the athlete I ever was. That’s for sure. And so now, my main goal to make him reach his potential is to just to get that mental side of the game – he’s just a freshman. It takes a couple years of experience to really learn the system so I’m hoping to kind of shave off some of that time with him, teach him the ins and outs and shortcuts of the game to really be the best player he can.”

Spond, meanwhile, is trying to be the best coach and teammate he can be. The senior said he’s still an “in-first, out-last-type of guy,” and he lifts with the team, just doing his own workouts. The 6-foot-1, 248-pounder is now on a regular medicine schedule for preventative purposes, but he’s fine with day-to-day activities. Spond said he stays away from anything that could possibly shake his head around, such as skiing.

And for the Colorado native, Saturday’s game against Air Force in Colorado Springs will be a homecoming. Spond said a host of family, friends and former coaches will be on hand at Falcon Stadium, and he’s still trying to round up as many tickets as he can.

“This has definitely been a hallmark game in my mind since even I was a freshman and schedules projected us to play in Colorado,” Spond said. “So this is definitely something I’ve been looking forward to. Playing or coaching, it’s just going to be fun to go back to Colorado.”

Following the season, Spond will finish out the spring semester and graduate in May. The political science major still doesn’t know what his future holds, but the opportunities seem endless. Spond has been interviewing with a variety of companies in different industries.

“I’m a leader. I’m a born leader. I love to lead,” he said.

Maybe coaching?

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

Maybe outside of sports?

“I majored in political science so whether it’s politics or government or next President of the United States, I don’t know,” he added.

Kelly said after Spond spoke at the team’s pep rally in Dallas when the Irish traveled to Texas for the Shamrock Series against Arizona State, the senior found himself with “upwards of 10 job offers.”

“After I spoke at the pep rally and was able to meet some of the alumni and have them see who I was and understand that I’m the type of guy you want on your team, I think some of those companies wanted me for that,” he said.

Player or coach, president or not, Danny Spond defies restriction. He’s just a person teammates want on their team.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu