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October 27, 2012

Spond focused by faith

NORMAN, Okla. - Danny Spond got the call while driving to Columbine High School on a January morning almost three years ago.

Barely three months earlier he'd been nearly knocked unconscious on a football field, victim of a brutal concussion that threatened to end a career that always felt limitless to the multi-position athlete. So after Spond hung up he pulled to the side of the road. Tears streamed down his face.

Next Spond called his mother, a sixth grade teacher at Hope Christian Academy. Then he called his father, pulling him off a job at his plumbing company in Littleton, Colo.

Janet and Don Spond knew something important had happened before answering. Danny, the youngest of their three children, never called during school days.

This warranted the interruption.

Notre Dame had just offered a scholarship.

"He was so filled with emotion," Janet said. "He couldn't believe God answered that prayer for him."

Some will say No. 5 Notre Dame needs a few of their own answered on Saturday night against No. 8 Oklahoma at Memorial Stadium, a place where the Sooners have lost just four times in the last 14 seasons. Few have more belief than Spond that that's exactly what will happen.

The junior outside linebacker, who spoke openly about his faith this week with a silver cross around his neck, had prayers answered to get to Notre Dame in the first place. He was a seven-month commitment to Colorado, recruited as a quarterback to a program that now ranks among college football's worst. Notre Dame showed little interest until Brian Kelly was hired.

Prayers were answered again this fall after Spond collapsed during training camp with what doctors feared to be a stroke. Spond had already overcome mono as an underclassman, which relegated him to a special teams extra. But this put more than his football career in jeopardy, his quality of life felt in the balance too.

"That's definitely the worst pain I've ever experienced in my life," Spond said. "Not only scaring me to death with all the symptoms, but also the excruciating pounding with all that I felt for a week, just constant.

"I had a lot of doctors come up to me and tell me they didn't know if my career was in the future."

Doctors eventually diagnosed Spond with severe migraines but couldn't trace the cause or predict if they'd return. He did physical rehab at Memorial Hospital in South Bend and saw a specialist at the University of Michigan.

Spond had called his parents the night before that August practice confident his time had arrived. The next time they talked, Spond simply asked to be included in his church's prayer chain.

"There was a calmness about him," Janet said. "I marvel at him a little bit. He could have reacted with more anger or frustration. Don't get me wrong, we experienced that too. But the first response was, 'Mom, can you guys pray for me please?'"

Spond's father made the trip to the Midwest while his mother stayed back, answering her son's request. Few were more qualified to help than Father Sean McGrath at St. Francis Cabrini in Littleton. When Spond was a 12-year old receiving communion, the priest mentioned Notre Dame with the sacrament.

"We got you," McGrath told Janet.

Spond felt a draw to the church growing up, suggesting the family attend masses with guitar music. Spond invited friends to services and tried to spread his faith. That's continued at Notre Dame with the team's expanding fellowship program. The group prays daily at practice. It discusses faith during team meals.

"I think guys are starting to see what faith can really do," Spond said. "To me, the way I see it, there's no coincidence that we're having such a great year and we're always having so many guys have the Word in their life. I think there's a direct correlation."

Spond has played himself into an unexpected solution within Notre Dame's defense this season, surprising even Kelly. With the secondary decimated by injury, the Irish have little choice but to play the 248-pound Spond against shifty slot receivers like the ones at Oklahoma.

In Spond's five starts, the Irish defense has allowed just two touchdowns, both last weekend against BYU.

Spond has 22 tackles this season to go with two pass breakups and a clinching interception against the Cougars. Notre Dame's starting drop linebacker last season - Prince Shembo - didn't get a hand on the football all year. He returned to rush linebacker this spring.

"I think it's the classic case of somebody making you notice him," Kelly said. "His play makes you notice him."

Spond always had faith that it would.

That belief has been rewarded, again.

"My faith in my Lord is No. 1 in my life. Always has been, always will be," Spond said. "I do all I can for Him because I know I wouldn't be here without him, there's no doubt about it."



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