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

Nov 29, 2012, 4:30 PM EST

Photo by Matt Cashore

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.

Note: This document was originally produced and distributed in November 2012. In January 2013, Manti Te’o told ESPN he had been the victim of a hoax regarding the existence of Lennay Kekua.

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.

The Loss of Two Special People on the Same Day:

On Sept. 5, 2012, within hours of one another, two women who were fixtures in Manti Te’o’s life left the earth. Annette Santiago, 72, his grandmother, died of natural causes. Lennay Kekua, 22, his girlfriend and a student at Stanford, died of leukemia.

School officials gave Te’o the option of returning home to be with family, but he remained in South Bend. Three nights later in East Lansing, Te’o had 12 tackles and recovered a fumble in a 20-3 upset of then-10th-ranked Michigan State. One week later, versus 18th-ranked Michigan, Te’o had two interceptions and forced another pair as the Irish defeated the Wolverines in South Bend.

That day, Sept. 15, Kekua was buried in California. Te’o knew exactly what time the casket would be closed (noon in South Bend) and the Irish were going through their pre-game walk-thru in an empty stadium at the time. He turned to defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and asked for the time. Diaco said, “12:01.” It was then that Te’o took a moment to think about all that had occurred.

Kekua, by the way, had made Te’o promise to not miss a game in order to attend her funeral service. All she asked for was a dozen white roses, which Manti sent.

That night thousands of Notre Dame students–and others, including Wolverine supporters–honored Manti and his grief by wearing leis.

“When I lost my girlfriend and my grandmother, that was possibly the hardest time of my life,” Te’o told Kate Sullivan in an interview recently. “And to see the Notre Dame community rally around just one person . . . that’s where I just looked up and said, ‘Heavenly Father, you’re the man.’

“Four years ago, I couldn’t see this,” Te’o continued. “All I could see was SC, ‘Fight On,’ national championship. Now I’m sitting here, receiving this peace, this strength, from people I don’t even know, they don’t even know, but . . . they care about Manti instead of number five. Those are the experiences where I say, ‘You know what? I made the right choice.’”

“Ever since I was young I understood the whole meaning of life isn’t how much money you accumulate, how much fame you experience, it’s how many lives you touch, how many faces you bring smiles to. I see myself back in Hawaii doing something in the community to improve the lives of young children. Everything I’ve done is to prepare myself to give back.”
— Manti Te’o on life after football, Chicago Sun-Times, August 29, 2011

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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