Nov 28, 2012, 2:07 PM EDT
The following is from a recent feature written by John Walters (’88). We’ll be posting it in segments on the Strong & True blog over the next few days, but you can also check out the full article here.
From the North Shore of the island of Oahu to South Bend, Ind., Manti Te’o cuts an unconventional figure. Here is a Mormon of Polynesian descent attending college at America’s foremost Catholic university. A Hawaii native who chose to attend school six time zones east in northern Indiana. A gentle soul who smashes into ball carriers like a 20-foot wave on the gridiron. A defensive player who is being considered for the Heisman Trophy. Below is a compilation of facts, anecdotes and details on Notre Dame’s No. 5 (the defensive version), who has played a pivotal role in the Irish’s undefeated season.
Former Notre Dame assistant coach Brian Polian took 11 trips in a 15-month span to see Manti Te’o (or watch him play), according to Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports. Each visit would have been roughly a 8,600 mile roundtrip for Polian.
In 2008, Te’o's senior year at Punahou High School, former Irish head coach Charlie Weis flew to Honolulu during Notre Dame’s bye weekend to watch Te’o play. Because it was a dark period, Weis was unable to have any personal contact with the player who would be named the USA TODAY national Defensive Player of the Year. Weis simply watched Punahou’s game and then boarded a flight back to Chicago.
Of course, lots of institutions were intrigued by Teo’s talent–he stopped counting scholarship offers at 29–but no schools east of the Rocky Mountains appeared to have a viable chance at landing him. Brigham Young was a finalist, as Te’o is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon). There is, in fact, a BYU satellite campus (BYU-Hawaii) located in Te’o's hometown of Laie.
USC appeared to be the favorite for numerous reasons. First, no school had been more successful on the gridiron over the previous half decade. USC happened to be Te’o's favorite team as a child. No mainland campus, except for UCLA’s, was as readily accessible by air to the islands. And finally, USC had a rich history of talented defensive players of Polynesian descent, from Junior Seau to Troy Polamalu to Rey Maualuga. Each one an All-American, the first an NFL Hall of Famer (and Polamalu will be).
Finally, there was Te’o's recruiting trip to South Bend on the fourth weekend of November.
On the Friday he arrived, an unseasonably early snowstorm blanketed South Bend, though Manti stepped off the plane in board shorts and flip-flops. The following day, Notre Dame suffered a disappointing defeat, losing to a 2-9 Syracuse team that had fired its coach, Greg Robinson, earlier in the week. The 28-degree weather, conditions so brutal that the visiting recruits watched the second half of the game indoors on TV, only exacerbated the misery of the 24-23 loss.
It was a nadir during a month in which the Irish would play five games and lose four of them.
However, with a 6-6 record the Irish accepted an invitation to the Hawaii Bowl. When Te’o and his parents went to watch Notre Dame practice before the Christmas Eve contest in Honolulu, the entire team lined up to shake his parents’ hands. That, he later said, impressed him.
Manti Te’o first entered a collegiate game on Notre Dame’s second defensive series of its 2009 season opener versus Nevada. On third-and-15 for the Wolf Pack, Te’o blitzed the pocket but overran Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick (now with the San Francisco 49ers) who headed straight upfield. Te’o chased down Kaepernick from behind and caught him after an 11-yard gain.
After playing, but not starting, his first three games, Te’o was finally installed as a starter versus Purdue. He twice recorded double-digit tackles as a freshman, both against Pacific-10 (at the time) schools: Washington and Stanford (10, both games). In fact, Te’o plays very well against Pac-12 opponents, having reached double-digit tackles six times in his career against them.
John Walters, a 1988 Notre Dame graduate, is originally from Red Bank, N.J. He has worked as a sports writer at The Daily (an iPad publication), Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports and AOL Fanhouse—and is the author of “Notre Dame Golden Moments: 20 Memorable Events That Shaped Notre Dame Football” and “The Same River Twice.” He also assisted Digger Phelps in authoring “Basketball for Dummies.”
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