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Manti Te’o: The Notre Dame Linebacker Unplugged – Part Seven

Dec 2, 2012, 4:56 PM EDT

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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.

Laie:

Manti Te’o was born and raised in Laie, a town of approximately 6,000 on the remote northwest shore of Oahu, the Hawaiian island that is also home to the state capital, Honolulu. The town is comprised mostly of Mormons as it became a settlement for members of that faith in 1865. The campus of BYU-Hawaii is situated there. Manti grew up four houses down from fellow Notre Dame teammate Robby Toma, a wide receiver. The two have been friends since kindergarten. Irish defensive end Kona Schwenke grew up one town over from the pair.

Punahou:

Manti Te’o attended the Punahou School, a prestigious private school located in Honolulu in the foothills of the verdant Koolau Mountains. A coeducational, K-12 institution, Punahou has an enrollment of approximately 3,760 and is the largest independent school in the United States.

The school was founded in 1841, more than a century before Hawaii was granted statehood (1949). Alumni include professional golfer Michelle Wie, former NFL players Mark Tuinei and Mosi Tatupu, and of course, President Barack Obama.

In his sophomore season at Punahou, Te’o was named first-team all-state despite playing in only four games due to a broken leg.

As a junior he was named the state’s player of the year by both Gatorade and the Honolulu Advertiser after compiling 90 tackles, five sacks and rushing for 400 yards and 10 touchdowns.

In his senior season Te’o was named the national Defensive Player of the Year by USA Today. He had 129 tackles, 11 sacks and three interceptions, but more importantly, led Punahou to its first state championship in school history.

Te’o and Toma:

Manti Te’o and Robby Toma, Notre Dame teammates, have been best friends and neighbors since kindergarten. They grew up four houses from one another in Laie.

“That’s my twin,” Te’o will say of Toma, who is five-foot-nine, 185 pounds and decidedly not Polynesian.

Toma’s mother, Tammy, drove both boys to school for the one-hour drive each way to Punahou. Although Toma was nowhere near as highly recruited as Te’o, savvy college coaches knew that they were best friends. Also, that Te’o was an advocate for fellow Hawaii prep players (he made his announcement at a prayer breakfast in which numerous college-bound scholarship players were all guests).

Hence, Toma received scholarship offers (coincidentally, to schools that were also heavily recruiting Te’o). Robby verbally committed to UCLA, but when Manti announced for the Irish, the Bruin coaches badgered him to persuade Manti to reconsider, according to a recent story published in the New York Times.

Then, as the story goes, the fax machine that would allow Toma to send his letter of intent to Westwood broke. Given time to reconsider, Toma phoned former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis and said, “I want to know if you want me for me.”

Weis assured Toma that he saw him playing a Wes Welker-type role, and whether or not that was sincere or simply good salesmanship, Toma signed with the Irish. NBC color analyst Mike Mayock rarely goes an entire broadcast without extolling Toma, who has 56 career receptions, for his precise routes and sure-handedness.

“That dude has done so much for me,” Te’o told Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune. “Not only being here and being a constant reminder of home, but keeping me on track, keeping me focused. I don’t call him my best friend. I call him my brother.”

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.”