MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. | The guy who wears jersey No. 13 — on purpose and with a purpose — feels like the luckiest man in the world these days.
There is no offense too scary, no lineman too burly, no media question too blatantly annoying to dilute the relentless drive that was born from Notre Dame linebacker Danny Spond’s second chance in life.
Because of what came after, the junior from Littleton, Colo., doesn’t want to forget the pain or the angst caused by a migraine condition so severe it hospitalized him for three days in August, took away his motor skills on the left side of his body for two of those days, and had his mind spinning about what normal would constitute moving forward.
“Forget about playing football again,” ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco offered. “I wasn't sure that he was ever going to have a functional life.”
Nor does Spond want to forget about the aftermath of the Columbine Massacre, the almost 14-year-old images of which were stirred in recent days by the horrifying shootings at Sandy Hook (Conn.) Elementary School. Twenty-six died in the Sandy Hook tragedy on Dec. 14.
There’s a spiritual thread that runs through the darkest days in Spond’s memory, a transformative quality that makes them part of who he is becoming. And who he’ll be Monday night in Sun Life Stadium might just be Notre Dame’s X-factor, when the top-ranked Irish (12-0) try to capture the school’s first national title in Spond’s lifetime at the expense of No. 2 and defending titlist Alabama (12-1).
Virtually every step in Notre Dame’s ascent from unranked to undefeated invites the idea of fate to the party, most notably where Spond’s fellow linebacker, Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o, is concerned. But if destiny has a child in this second-to-last BCS National Championship Game, it could be the 6-foot-2, 248-pounder who evolved from a high school quarterback to mastering the most difficult and thankless position in Notre Dame’s defensive scheme, not necessarily because of the fateful events in his life but the choices he made when confronted with them.
Spond was in the second grade in Littleton, Colo., when Columbine High students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold plotted to murder hundreds of their classmates across town by planting two bombs in the school’s cafeteria.
When the bombs failed to detonate, the pair improvised by shooting 34 people in the school at random, 13 of whom were killed. Their spree ended in a double suicide.
A decade later, Spond played quarterback for Columbine High, donning No. 4. But when he landed at Notre Dame, he changed his number to 13,
“I wear the No. 13, because there were 13 victims lost,” he said Thursday during the daily media frenzy leading up to Monday’s title game. “I knew who had gotten me to this position and supported me, and, without a doubt, that was Columbine and everything. So I wear the 13 with pride.
“I went to Columbine High School and was a part of that history. (The tragedy) brought us together, brought the community together and really built a society and an area that really takes care of each other.”
And that is his hope for the families of Sandy Hook community, that they’ll find the same kind of dynamic in their recovery.
“I can’t express how horrible of an event that was obviously and going through that,” he said. “It’s hard to explain, put into words something like that. But time will heal. It did in our community, and I know it will there.”
The faith Spond built from the Columbine aftermath was rocked and tested in August, moments after some random tingling in his face at Notre Dame football practice started mushrooming into a full-blown nightmare.
The unofficial and initial prognoses made in the heat of the moment ranged from a stroke to the suggestion there might be a connection to a concussion Spond suffered during his senior football season at Columbine.
It turned out to be neither, and between some specialists at the University of Michigan and ND’s own team doctors, an explanation and solution were concocted. Thanks to a medication regimen, the severe migraines disappeared just as quickly and completely as they encroached in the first place.
“More than anything, I learned it’s just I don’t need to worry about anything,” Spond said. “I have a God above who’s going to take care of me, and that’s the most important thing.”
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was so surprised by the sudden positive turn of events, he had already moved freshman Cat linebacker Romeo Okwara and freshman safety CJ Prosise to Spond’s drop linebacker spot to back up de facto No. 1 Ben Councell.
But by week three of the season, though, Spond made his season debut and his first career start in a 20-3 subduing of Michigan State that provided the first hints that perhaps the Irish had a BCS run in them.
Spond had four tackles in that game, then proceeded almost vertically on his learning curve. By the end of the regular season, he had gone from a player who had trouble separating from Councell to irreplaceable.
“Going further back than his episode, Danny came out of high school as a quarterback,” Te’o said. “And for a quarterback to go to outside linebacker and to be setting the edge on 300-plus-pound linemen, that takes character and courage in itself.”
The demands of the position also require him to run with wide receivers and thump with tight ends. His progression and that of bookend outside linebacker Prince Shembo are largely why ND can flip from its base 3-4 defense to a 4-3 look so seamlessly,
Sprinkled among the front-seven blue-chippers, Spond is the paradigm of Kelly’s player-development mantra and then some. His climb has been a galvanizing force on a squad seemingly teeming with them.
“To watch him battle and fight and stay positive and become the player that he has become for his teammates in 2012, he is a stalwart out there in the field,” Diaco said. “It's very hard to get a play on him in the pass game or the run game. It's just really been inspirational for me to watch and be a part of.”
“For me individually, I’ve just worked each day in knowing where I’ve wanted to be,” Spond said, “and I wanted to be on this defense and have a role in it that was going to help us get to this point.
“I’d be lying to you if I told you what I went through in August didn’t change me quite a bit and change my outlook in life in general. So that, if anything, gave me a lot of motivation and understanding of who I’m playing this game for.”
For more coverage of Notre Dame football, go to www.NDinsider.com.