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October 25, 2013

Homecoming awaits Spond

Danny Spond talked to his parents late last Saturday night, just like after every other one of his Notre Dame games. He talked about Jaylon Smith's interception. He talked about closing his Irish career with a win against USC.

"You would have never known he wasn't on the field," said mother Janet Spond. "His reaction was exactly like last year."

This hasn't been anything like last year for the senior who was forced to retire from football after hemiplegic migraines struck Spond for the second time in two training camps.

Last year they robbed him of the season's opening two games before he staged a breakout season within Notre Dame's BCS National Championship Game run. They returned in August, Spond hospitalized again, his speech slurred and needing a cane to walk back into Notre Dame's practice facility.

Today Spond boards the team plane to Colorado for a homecoming that won't feel fully there when Notre Dame plays Air Force, barely an hour from his home in Littleton, where he developed into a four-star prospect at Columbine High School. Spond returns as an assistant coach, not fully at peace with football but resolute he had no choice but to walk away from it.

"It was an easy decision to make," Spond said. "When I was first going through the recovery process of taking eight pills a day and walking with a cane it was pretty easy to make. Definitely thinking down the road and thinking what's best for me in the future."

Spond may have his own section at Falcon Stadium tomorrow after Janet asked him to work on securing more than 70 tickets. Neighbors in Littleton bought Air Force season tickets just to make sure they'd get the Notre Dame game. The families of Bennett Jackson and DaVaris Daniels plan to stay with the Sponds, who are organizing the parent tailgate.

No longer part of Notre Dame's depth chart, Spond remains part of Notre Dame's program. He said he's never missed a meeting or a practice since returning. He travels to road games. He mentors his road game roommate Smith, who started Notre Dame's second half shutout of USC with an interception.

"I can understand what a coach's high is now," Spond said. "I've been enjoying this. I have to."

Spond said he might explore coaching after he graduates in December, with plans to walk with his class in the spring. Brian Kelly joked Spond got 10 job offers after his speech at the pep rally before the Shamrock Series in Dallas. Spond also talked at a student-athlete dinner during the Oklahoma weekend.

"People have come up to him, alumni and CEOs from all over, if you can believe it," Janet said. "They say, 'You are something else. You've got a bright future, call me. I want to interview you.'"

Spond retired without identifying the root of his hemiplegic migraines. Doctors haven't ruled out the concussion that ended his high school career, but Janet said it's an unlikely cause. Some doctors said a dental problem could be the underlying issue. But there's no doubt the physical contact of football brought out the debilitating symptoms.

Spond came to a prompt decision to walk away when presented with his options in August, so prompt his parents hoped for a more deliberate approach.

"It was tough for us because we have been there for all of his decisions thus far," Janet said. "Here he is, a college senior, pretty much stating to us that he's talked about it and asked all the questions and felt this was the right decision. From a parent's point of view, 'Danny are you sure? Your senior year?'

"He got a little bit defensive with us. He said to trust him, that he's making the decision that he needed to make. He didn't waver. He requested, 'Please support me.' We do. We absolutely do."

The further Spond gets from the paralyzing pain that overwhelmed him in August, the harder it's been for him to accept he'll never be part of another huddle. Spond thought as the weeks dragged on it would be easier to manage losing his senior season before it started.

"But it was definitely a reverse effect, it was still there," he said. "Just from my love of the game I can imagine. Any time you should be out there but you can't for some reason, you're gonna have that thought."

That thought will be there Saturday at Air Force during a game the Spond family hoped would be an on-field celebration of their son's Irish career. That thought will be there afterward too when the senior talks to his parents, Jan and Don, about a Notre Dame performance he impacted from the sideline.

"I know they can't see me out there as a player but they know what I've accomplished," Spond said. "Just to have them out there supporting our team is enough fulfillment."

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