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Notre Dame’s Spond has made difficult journey back

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012 9:58 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Practice churned on like any other practice on a Wednesday in August, full of sweat-flecked expectation, until Danny Spond got halfway through it. His head started to hurt. Football players get headaches, and they play through headaches, so the Notre Dame linebacker pressed on.

About the time his vision blurred and his face tingled, Spond figured he should stop. He approached head athletic trainer Rob Hunt with a self-diagnosis: I don’t feel well.

The medical staff proceeded with questions to puzzle out the junior’s condition. It was then that Spond lost feeling in the left side of his body. Soon he was at a hospital, where he would stay for two days, enduring a torrent of exams and scans, petrified that his brain and legs never would let him take another step.

“The pain was one thing — I can handle the pain,” Spond said. “I wanted to be able to move again, I wanted to be able to walk again. There were moments I didn’t know if that was going to be a possibility, or when that was going to come back, if at all.”

He tries not to, but sometimes Spond takes a moment after playing nearly every defensive snap for the BCS No. 3 Irish and juxtaposes that with fearful days followed by weeks of therapy to retrain the muscles in his leg — to move forward by reminding his body how to do that all over.

Days after that first attack, a specialist gave Spond an answer: He had suffered a rare hemiplegic migraine. Still, if he could tackle the arduous recovery from that, there was no guarantee he’d tackle anything else.

“Certainly the concern wasn’t whether he would play football but how well he would function,” Hunt said. “Once his function returned, it was: OK, football is in the picture — is he going to want to play football again? ... Danny is so faithful and so goal-driven that I don’t know there was ever a point that he doubted it.”

Initially, Spond worried his body wouldn’t let him. If a hemiplegic migraine sounds a lot like a stroke, it’s because it is.

“People classically get this complete paralysis on one side of the body or tremendous weakness on one side of the body,” said Tad Seifert, a Louisville-based sports neurologist. “The first time, it’s very anxiety-provoking because people think they’re indeed having a stroke.”

Confirmed Spond: “It was a terrifying feeling.”

He walked soon but with a pronounced hitch. He suffered episodic migraines for another week to 10 days. All along, Hunt and his staff attempted to keep Spond’s muscles firing, even if they weren’t.

Trainers picked up Spond’s right and left feet, and the left one dropped. They used a hand-grip dynamometer to measure grip strength, but Spond merely squeezing a hand demonstrated a deficit Hunt labeled “completely obvious.”

“He was a shell of what he was as a football player in just a short period of time,” Hunt said. “Our question was: How long is this going to take to get all his symptoms and all this weakness back in line?”

They had the technology. Hunt videotaped Spond’s gait as a baseline for the plan to correct it. Trainers used a machine specifically designed to recalibrate what Hunt called Spond’s “neuromuscular firing sequence,” re-instructing his quadriceps and hamstring to send messages appropriately.

More simply, Spond received verbal cues: Lift your big toe. Push off. Drag your foot.

“That was something I never in a million years would imagine that somebody would have to do,” Spond said. “That was kind of like a wake-up call: This is going to be a long road.”

Spond’s preexisting physical conditioning sped recovery, but it required weeks nevertheless. During that time, he and his father, Don, had a profound conversation about his future: Is football an option? Is it worth the risk?

The conclusion: Spond wasn’t ready to give it up. He now has 27 tackles and one interception in six games, hardly leaving the field. Irish coach Brian Kelly characterized Spond as “the classic case of somebody making you notice him.”

Now and again, Spond’s thoughts also drift to the struggles of home-state school Colorado, a program to which he once committed. He considers the path he’s on, and the agonizing episode he endured two months ago, and he’s reassured this pain was worth it.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Spond said. “This is where I’m supposed to be.”

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