Nov 23, 2012, 9:16 PM EST
When I came back to school in August, ready to start my senior year, I had two requests at work. The first was that I write a column on being a senior in the student section. The second was that I get to write the senior feature on Manti Te’o that would appear in the football program.
It wasn’t just that Te’o was the most prolific player on this football team—his numbers and reputation speak for themselves. I wanted to be the one to write the piece on Te’o because of what my little brother had told me about him from their brief interactions in the dorm where they both lived last year.
From everything I had heard about Te’o—choosing to attend Notre Dame despite his love of USC, his decision to defer his NFL dream to come back and play his senior year, his talent as the best linebacker in the country—what intrigued me the most about him was his presence amongst his fellow Notre Dame students. Because when I really stop to think about it, Manti Te’o and I are the same age, going to the same school, living out the same senior year.
I’ve interviewed some outstanding athletes and people during my time at Notre Dame. My first player feature ever, when I was a sophomore, was about Robert Hughes. He and I talked about the transition from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly, the “Hughes” cheer, and the game ball he received as a freshman the weekend after his brother’s death. Darrin Walls and I talked about the semester he took off and how that helped him mature from a boy to a man. Jonas Gray stopped cracking jokes long enough for us to have a serious talk about overcoming his disastrous fumble in the first game against South Florida and going on to score nine touchdowns last season.
Carrying on the tradition of Notre Dame football is not for the faint of heart and it is not for boys. These football players are men, and every time I sit down with one of them, they manage to surprise me with their level of focus.
Still, when I left my interview with Te’o, I called up my dad and said, “That was the best interview I’ve ever done.”
I was nervous going in. When you combine a remarkable athlete, personal tragedy, and an ongoing perfect season, you get a great story, and plenty of people have sat down to write Te’o’s story this year. I wanted to be different. I wanted my story to reveal a different side of this man. What could I say that hadn’t been said before?
True to my routine, I had a list of questions written out for Te’o when I met him for our interview. I didn’t glance at it once after he started answering my first question. Our interview was a conversation. For the time we spent talking about football, we spoke at equal length about things having nothing to do with football. Once Te’o found out that I’m majoring in film, we shared our favorite TV shows and movies. He asked me what I want to do next year. He asked me if I still lived on campus. He asked me if I had always wanted to come to Notre Dame.
It is a surreal thing, as a tiny, Midwestern girl, to find out that you have things in common with a 6’2, Hawaiian, nationally-recognized football player.
And suddenly, it all clicked. I knew the story that I could tell about Te’o was the story I have been telling all year. I wouldn’t write about Manti Te’o the football player, I would write about Manti Te’o the Notre Dame senior, because that was the man I got to know.
I entitled my feature “One of Us” because that’s exactly who he is. In terms of how he fit into my senior season, well, I can say that I’ll always remember our interview (I’ll probably tell my grandchildren about it).
But more importantly, I can tell you that Manti Te’o was the last piece to the puzzle I’ve been putting together all year—this football season has brought all of the students together in a way I never thought possible. There is something in this team that brings all of us—no matter how remarkably different or similar we may be—together in a community that I could have never fathomed.
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