Nov 15, 2012, 4:23 PM EDT
Note: This document was originally produced and distributed on Nov. 15, 2012. In January 2013, Manti Te’o told ESPN he had been the victim of a hoax regarding the existence of Lennay Kekua.
On Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009, one of the nation’s promising football recruits, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound Mormon linebacker from Laie, Hawaii had to make a decision. To college football pundits and recruiting gurus, the choice was obvious. The major city closest to his island home, the team he grew up cheering for, and the program that had finished the 2008 season with a 12-1 record, capped by a victory in the Rose Bowl – the USC Trojans.
But as any spiritual person does during a time of uncertainty, Manti Malietau Louis Te’o prayed.
And the answers to those prayers guided him to South Bend, Ind., the nation’s premier Catholic university, and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish – a football program fallen on hard times, seeking to rekindle its former greatness. One that in fact, months earlier, on his official visit, lost to lowly Syracuse on a brutally cold and snowy Senior Day.
Te’o’s presence on the field was felt from the moment he stepped on to the hallowed grounds of Notre Dame Stadium. Early in the second quarter of the Irish’s 2009 season opener, Nevada faced a 3rd-and-15 from its own 26. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick scrambled for 11 yards, before the freshman linebacker chased him down, making a first down-saving tackle on his very first collegiate play.
The following season, Te’o more than doubled his defensive output, recording 133 stops, including an impressive 21-tackle performance in a loss to eventual Orange Bowl champion Stanford.
As a junior in 2011, Te’o began to receive recognition as one of the best defensive players in college football. He was named to numerous All-America teams and was a finalist for several prestigious awards. NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. pegged him as a first-round selection in the 2012 draft.
Manti however, does not measure his life in tackles made or dollars earned.
At the Lott IMPACT Trophy presentation on Dec. 11, 2011, Te’o announced his decision to finish what he had started in South Bend. “The NFL is my goal,” he said. “My dream is to have an impact on the most people as possible. And I feel I’m not done at Notre Dame.”
He had come to the decision a few days earlier, after fighting back tears during the senior parents’ video at the team’s annual award show, realizing that a final college season was an experience no NFL paycheck could replace.
Irish fans have long known about Manti’s gridiron prowess, his ability to make plays all over the field and his tendency to put fear in the eyes of opposing quarterbacks.
But it has been during the past several months, that Ottilia and Brian Te’o’s oldest son has caught the rest of the nation’s attention, cementing his place as one of the most inspiring people to ever play at Notre Dame, one of the greatest linebackers to ever wear a college uniform.
At media day in August, Te’o spoke more about why he spurned millions to return for his senior season.
“I want to leave my mark here. I want to leave my stamp here on this school,” he said. “When everybody talks about Notre Dame, I want my picture to be up there. I want my name to be across there as one of the best to ever play here, but not only one of the best to ever suit up, but one of the best individuals to ever walk the halls of this campus.”
With the constant national spotlight – the accolades, the accomplishments, and attention that come with being the best player on college football’s most polarizing football team – it would have been easy for Manti to lose sight of where he came from. Being a student, let alone star student-athlete, is not easy. Even at a place like Notre Dame, college challenges your beliefs. It confronts you with moral dilemmas and questions your character.
From the beginning, Manti has not wavered from his core values – faith and family.
Never was that faith challenged more than on Sept. 12 of this year. The senior co-captain faced the unimaginable pain of losing two of the people he loved most, his grandmother and his girlfriend, within a matter of hours.
Three days later, the 20th-ranked Fighting Irish met #10 Michigan State at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.
No one would have faulted Te’o for having an off night. Playing with a heavy heart, he recorded 12 tackles and broke up a pair of passes, leading Notre Dame to a 20-3 victory – its first over a top-10 opponent since 2005.
“I’ve been around sports for 30 years and I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone as special as that young man,” University Vice President/Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick said that evening.
The following week, Notre Dame returned home for a night game against Michigan – an opponent that had broken the fan base’s collective heart in each of the previous three seasons.
At Friday night’s pep rally in front of Hesburgh Library, Te’o spoke, expressing his gratitude to the Notre Dame student body.
“I love you guys,” he said. “Four years ago, I made a decision to come here, and I didn’t really know why. Times like these, I know why. I love each and every one of you, and I can’t thank you enough…for all the love and support you’ve shown me and my family.”
The next night, on the day Lennay Kekua was laid to rest, Manti paid tribute to his late girlfriend with perhaps the most moving performance of his career. With Irish and Wolverines fans alike wearing leis in support of Te’o and his family, the linebacker made eight tackles and intercepted two Denard Robinson passes, helping Notre Dame to a 13-6 win.
Head coach Brian Kelly awarded the game ball to Kekua, telling his senior leader to take it back to Hawaii in memory of her.
Te’o’s signature moments did not stop there.
A late interception “Heisman moment” versus Oklahoma, sealing Notre Dame’s improbable victory in Norman.
You can analyze his stats, rattle off the long list of his awards, and debate whether or not he’s a Heisman candidate or top-5 draft pick. But the true measure of Manti Te’o’s Notre Dame legacy is in the way he has affected those around him.
How he inspired a fan base, believed in his teammates and coaches, galvanized the student body and turned his own personal tragedy into a story of courage and triumph, touching the lives of others coping with loss.
He’s been featured on College GameDay, Strong of Heart, Jim Rome, and the Scott Van Pelt show. He sat down with Kate Sullivan (’98) for an exclusive interview on his time at Notre Dame. And his story’s been told in countless great articles (like this and this and this, and this and this, just to name a few), each one seeming to add a new chapter to Manti’s growing Fighting Irish legend.
He’s almost two years younger than me. He’s a student-athlete at the university. I’m an intern in the athletic department. By those measures, I should probably be the one setting the example for Manti Te’o.
Instead, it’s the other way around. I hardly know him, yet I’m inspired by how he carries himself, how he treats everyone as though they’re a close friend, how he’s demonstrated perseverance, courage and a remarkable commitment to his faith, even in the most trying of times.
On Saturday afternoon, 29 seniors will be recognized at Notre Dame Stadium. Great leaders, future NFL players, consummate teammates, first-year walk-ons – all have played a role in this magical season. It’s sure to be a special day.
But none of these players will receive a more stirring final ovation than Manti Te’o, because in our lifetime, there has never been a Notre Dame player as universally beloved as the leader of the Irish defense.
Thank you, Manti – for the new Fighting Irish foundation you’ve helped create, the timeless football moments you’ve provided us, and for being the ultimate role model in a world that doesn’t have enough of them.
Some time down the road, when there are a couple more banners in that Notre Dame Stadium tunnel, I’ll be proud to tell my family I had the privilege of watching you wear the distinguished gold helmet for four years.
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