‘Win or lose,’ Notre Dame football star praises God
by Julie Filby
DANNY SPOND, Littleton native and starting linebacker for the University of Notre Dame, lifts his helmet into the air last season to symbolically deliver his pre-game prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord.
While pre-game rituals for some athletes revolve around superstition, for University of Notre Dame starting linebacker Danny Spond, it’s all about
“Before each game we run out of the tunnel to the end zone, and take a second to kneel,” Spond, 21, told the Denver Catholic Register over the phone Feb. 14 from South Bend, Ind. “And we say a quick prayer: ‘Thank you for the game, thank you for the opportunity—win or lose, we’ll praise you in the end.’”
He then lifts the familiar gold helmet of the Fighting Irish into the air to symbolize sending that prayer directly to God. When joining his then 12-0 team on the field in Miami, Fla., Jan. 7 for the BCS National Championship game, the ritual was especially meaningful; though ultimately they didn’t have the outcome they hoped for, losing to Alabama 42-14.
“It was so surreal, so special,” said the former first-team all-Colorado Columbine High School quarterback and longtime parishioner of St. Frances Cabrini in Littleton. “It was one thing to have a good year, but for me it was so much more … not knowing (earlier in the season) if I’d ever play again.”
At fall training camp last August, Spond was about an hour into morning practice when he got a headache.
“I shook it off,” he said. “But it kept getting worse and worse so I had to take myself out of drills.”
He began losing feeling in his face, then his arm and leg. Eventually he lost feeling on the entire left side of his body.
“At 10 a.m. we received the call from the trainer,” said his mother, Jan Spond, who lives in Littleton with husband Don. “His voice sounded so scared … they couldn’t figure out what
was wrong with him.”
After running what Danny described as “every test imaginable,” doctors determined it was a hemiplegic migraine, a rare type of headache so extreme it caused stroke-like paralysis.
Not knowing if he would ever play football again, he placed his trust in God. “My faith helped me relax,” he said. “I put it all on God ... I ‘let go and let God.’”
He was also widely supported in prayer by family, friends and the St. Frances Cabrini community.
“I credit our pastor (Father Sean McGrath), our church, and our community for being so supportive, so prayerful,” said Jan Spond.
Danny was out of football for exactly 30 days, rejoining the team for the third game of the season, against Michigan State Sept. 15. He earned back his starting position, and garnered 40 total tackles for the season. His recovery didn’t surprise his mother.
“Boy, he came back with two feet on the ground, with a renewed energy,” she said. “He’s a very optimistic young man and always gets back up. He has strong faith and knows everything happens for a reason.”
Establishing his faith foundation began at an early age.
“From my earliest memories, my parents were our number one teachers when it comes to our faith,” he said of himself and sisters Jill, 30, and Julie, 25.
“Having them lead by example and seeing the way they treated each other, and the way they treat other people, that really showed what it meant to be a true Catholic and sparked my faith and understanding.”
Jan and Don, high school sweethearts, met at Columbine High School, where Don also played football. They have been married 32 years, and been parishioners at St. Frances Cabrini for 14 years, where both teach religious education and participate in several other ministries.
“We love our parish, our Church family,” Jan said. “They’ve seen us through a lot of ups and downs.”
The migraine last August was not Danny’s first health scare. During his senior year at Columbine, he suffered a serious concussion following a helmet-to-helmet hit during a football game; and in sixth grade he broke his neck in a fluke accident during a baseball game.
“I’ve seen how powerful prayer can be,” he said. “It’s helped me realize how important it is to have that faith, to have something so much greater than yourself.”
At Columbine, he was active in Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and influenced by football coach Andy Lowry, also a Catholic. Danny lead confirmation classes at St. Frances Cabrini and continues to speak regularly to youth.
“Danny loves the Lord, he loves his faith,” said Father McGrath, who remains in close touch with Spond through calls, texts and visits when he’s in town. “His parents modeled that to him through prayer, dedication and service to the Church.”
Spond often lectors at team Masses prior to games, Father continued, and is a man of prayer and sincerity.
“While he’s so proud to wear that Notre Dame uniform, he’s extremely humble,” said Father McGrath, a rabid Fighting Irish fan himself.
“I could still take him in a fight,” he joked. Spond stands 6-foot, 3-inches tall, and weighs in at 245 pounds.
“I was blessed with God-given athletic ability,” said Spond. “But the only reason I’m here is because of Our Lord, no matter what.”
Spond, a 2012 Knute Rockne Scholar Athlete Award winner, looks forward to his senior year at Notre Dame and graduating with a degree in political science.
When asked what the future holds, he again puts his trust in God.
“I’ve always been a person to love helping others,” he said. “Whatever path I chose, I leave it in the Lord’s hands.”