by Cat Caracci
Danny Spond, wearing his No. 13 jersey, khaki pants and a baseball cap, walked onto the field before the Notre Dame-Air Force game hand in hand with captains Zack Martin, TJ Jones and Bennett Jackson.
“What’s your choice?” the official asked.
“Tails,” Spond answered, and when the coin landed tails, “We’ll take the ball.”
Spond’s return to Colorado, his home state, was bittersweet. He had been looking forward to the game against Air Force in Colorado Springs, Colo., for years, but on Oct. 26, Spond left the field after the coin toss and didn’t return.
At fall camp in 2013, Spond was hit in the head while practicing blocks and suffered a debilitating migraine. Trainers took him to a hospital in Marion, Ind., where he was stabilized and put on painkillers. He was later transported to a South Bend hospital, where he spent a few days recovering. His father, Don, and his girlfriend, Madeline Wilson, stayed with him in his South Bend apartment while his condition continued to improve.
“At that point, I didn’t really have any control of the left side of my body,” Spond says. “With my migraine condition, the right side of my brain gets attacked and the left side of my body goes blank, basically — numb and uncontrollable.
“It took a solid two to three weeks before I regained full feeling function of the left side of my body and about another month before full cognitive recovery and all the cobwebs were cleaned off.”
Spond talked to his neurologist in Michigan about whether or not he should continue playing football. They decided it would be best not to, and suddenly Spond was a coach instead of a player.
“I joined the team for a reason, and the school gave me so much, so I still wanted to give back to it somehow,” Spond says. Head coach Brian Kelly decided to allow Spond to travel with the team, working closely with his teammates and helping coach Irish linebackers, including freshman Jaylon Smith and junior Ben Councell.
His transition from student-athlete to student-coach wasn’t easy.
“I’d be lying to you if I told you it was easy,” Spond says. “I really struggled for a good month, trying to figure out why this had to happen to me, during my senior year. I’ll be honest — I was pretty upset with God.
“I was probably at the lowest part of my life, and I told myself, ‘Listen, you’ve got two options: you can be upset about this for the rest of your life and let this define you, or you can define it and you can turn it into a positive and help other people through things they go through.’”
Spond changed his perspective and turned his focus to coaching his former teammates.
“Coaching was the best thing for me,” Spond says. “Being around my teammates was the best medicine I could have had. Those guys made me feel just the same, just a part of the team as always, and being able to travel with the team and being in on all the meetings — I still felt like I was playing. That really meant a lot to me and really helped me in my recovery process.”
Along with his teammates, the Notre Dame community rallied around Spond that much more.
“Throughout the season, I had a lot of people reach out to me — fans, alumni and other people. … They told me, ‘Your story’s an inspiration. I really look up to you for making that decision,’” Spond says. “A lot of people told me they had similar situations where they had to give stuff up because of injury.
“I think I became a positive influence in people’s lives to understand that it’s OK, and everything happens for a reason.”
This flood of messages inspired Spond.
“I decided, instead of having people reach out to me, why don’t I reach out to them?”
The result was Undefeated, an organization that will allow Spond to give talks and, hopefully, to change the lives of others in his situation. While still in its early stages, the organization has booked events with businesses, organizations and clubs. Spond is also writing a book for Ave Maria Press about his experience.
“My ultimate goal in all of this is just to get out to as many sports teams, as many people, as many organizations,” Spond says. “Everyone’s going to have tough times in their lives; everyone’s going to have difficult situations come up, and hopefully my message can help them through that.”
This article appeared in print in the Jan. 23, 2014 issue of Scholastic. Pick up a copy around campus or subscribe today!