- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Don Spond has often recited that familiar parental saying, the one about only being as happy as your least happy child. The idiom hit home a couple of weeks ago. Don had just written a note to his son, Danny, telling him how proud he was of the way he was handling his senior year at Notre Dame, and how his parents would never quit on him. Upon reading the letter, Danny called his dad and, in a bit of a role reversal, the son comforted the father.
"He said, 'Well Dad, you know when you tell me that when your kids are good, you're good? It works the other way, too,'" an emotional Don told ESPN.com.
The Sponds will never "get over" the fact that Danny's days as a football player are over because of hemiplegic migraines. Not after a breakout junior season that ended in the national title game. Not when there was a promising final campaign and potentially much more on the horizon, with the 6-foot-1½, 248-pound Danny primed to have an even larger role as one of eight returning starters on Notre Dame's defense.
But the family has accepted the cards they have been dealt, which have an otherwise healthy Danny playing out his last season as an Irish assistant coach, attending every practice and traveling to every game while rarely letting up in his fellow Dog linebackers' ears.
All of it has hit home this week, as the Littleton, Colo., native readies for Notre Dame's trip Saturday to Colorado Springs to play Air Force, a date that had been circled on Sponds' calendar long before they knew Danny would not be taking the field.
"Back in May when I went down to Colorado Springs just to have dinner with my family, I remember tweeting something about 'Can't wait to play here in October,'" Danny Spond said Wednesday, his first meeting with the media since announcing his retirement in August.
"So this has definitely been a hallmark game in my mind since even when I was a freshman and the schedules projected us to play in Colorado. It's definitely something I've been looking forward to. Playing or coaching, it's just going to be fun to go back to Colorado with Notre Dame."
Coaching has been the calling this season, and whether that eventually turns into a career is a thought that Spond is not ready to table. He is set to graduate in December with a degree in political science and, based on job interviews and even pep rally speeches so far, the corporate world figures to welcome him with open arms.
His duties now include getting Jaylon Smith ready for what lies ahead, with the five-star freshman having been thrown into the fire early at the starting Dog spot after Spond went down.
"Jaylon's a tremendous athlete, it's been fun to work with him this year," Spond said. "He's twice the athlete I ever was, that's for sure. So now my main goal is to make him reach his potential, just get that mental side of the game. He's just a freshman, and it takes a couple years of experience to really learn the system, so I'm hoping to kind of shave off some of that time with him, teach him the ins and outs, the shortcuts of the game to really be the best player he can."
Said Smith: "Danny's been the best. He knows the position like no one else. Other than [defensive coordinator Bob] Diaco, no one knows it better. He's really just been there for me, just helping me out any way he can so that I can be successful."
Spond is on a regular medicine schedule now and is not limited in his daily duties. He was walking with a cane early in fall camp after a third episode in the past year partially numbed the left side of his body, which ultimately forced him to announce his decision to retire after an early August practice.
Contact is likely a trigger point for the migraines, but tests upon tests have offered little in the way of clarity. He joked he will leave the skis at home this winter regardless, just to err on the side of caution.
Still, Notre Dame has played seven games this season, and Spond, who missed the first two games last year in the aftermath of a migraine, said each kickoff has seemingly been more difficult to watch without pads on.
"I would say initially it was very difficult, as anyone could imagine," Spond said. "Very emotional time, very hard time on me and my family. But I told myself I had two options in this: I can either give in and let this beat me and let it define me, or I can beat it and overcome it, and the way that I was going to do that was to give all I have for this team.
"The team gave me so much, this university's given me so much; it was my job to give back in any way I could."
The occasion is bittersweet for the Sponds, who credit Danny in helping them move forward despite having his career ripped away when he was so close to the pinnacle of his football life.
The conversation between father and son after Don's note a few weeks ago helped drive that point further home.
"We talked on the phone for about an hour," Don Spond said. "He had already come to grips with it for a long time. He had called and said, 'Dad, I'm still a part of this team, and you need to accept it. You need to accept it, Dad.' And that was just a real intense phone conversation. I learned a lot from my son that night about what a strong man he's grown to be. He's very mature, and I don't think I would've handled it the way he did. But his faith is so strong, that's what helped get him through this. He firmly believes it, it's just not words. He believes in his faith and it's what's helping him get through.
"It was a good conversation. I walked away and it was just, I'll do anything for my kid."
4dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information