As a senior football standout at Punahou High School in Laie, Hawaii, back in 2008, Manti Te’o loved USC. He worked hard and was considered by many as the top-rated linebacker recruit in the country. It was an impressive distinction for a state not known for exporting college-level talent back to the Mainland.
Te’o later verbally committed to play for the Trojans and their head coach Pete Carroll. He had considered Notre Dame and even visited the South Bend campus for a game. It was a disaster. The weather was cold and miserable and the underwhelming Irish lost to Syracuse. The next week Notre Dame was pummeled by USC, 38-3.
But when it came time to ink the deal, Te’o remained torn. He prayed. He sought council from his family. And on national signing day, he surprised the college football world by putting a Fighting Irish baseball cap on his head.
That moment seemed big at the time. It looms prodigious nearly four years later as Te’o’s presence, intangibles and play on the field has the Irish on the cusp of their first national championship in 24 years as they prepare to battle No. 2 Alabama Monday night in the BCS National Championship game.
“He’s a great player and makes a lot of plays for his defense,” said Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. “He is the heart and soul for (Notre Dame). He’s going to be a big key to (Monday’s) game, like always.”
That’s the nuts and bolts analysis of Te’o’s impact.
Charting where the Notre Dame program was when Te’o arrived and where it is now as he prepares for his final game on the sport’s biggest stage against perhaps its most dominant team the past four years, takes a pretty big map. Yet, Te’o has managed to point the way out of the darkness, leading the Irish in tackles the past three seasons and finishing second in the Heisman Trophy balloting last month.
He collected national honors last month like Halloween candy, opening his goodie bag for the Walter Camp, Maxwell, Lombardi, Bednarik, Nagurski, Butkus and Lott trophies. Add it up and his post-season haul makes Te’o the most decorated college football player in history.
Irish Head Coach Brian Kelly said he’s never coached anybody like Te’o, marveling at how 6-foot-2, 255-pound superstar knows the walk-ons by name and goes out of his way to motivate every member of the team, program and the university.
It didn’t happen overnight. He said he was a bit of a recluse at first as he began to fit in with the team.
“I was like, this is a totally different place, I'm not going to really let anybody in at first, I'm just going to feel it out,” Te’o said. “Once I broke down those walls, I was just surprised to see that Hawaii and South Bend are very similar.”
It’s safe to say that Te’o has come out of his shell. And because of the way he embraced Notre Dame and put the program on his shoulders, when he needed a shoulder the entire student body was there for him.
It has been well documented that before the Irish played at Michigan State on Sept. 15, Te’o received word from back home that his grandmother had passed away. Hours later he got another haunting call. His 21-year-old girlfriend had lost her battle with cancer.
He decided to stay in South Bend for Notre Dame’s next game against rival Michigan. It was a decision that had been discussed and pre-determined, he said. His play, as usual, was outstanding. Most of the 80,000-plus people in the stands that day wore Hawaiian leis in support of Manti.
The night before at the pep rally on the quad overlooked by “Touchdown Jesus,” students chanted Te’o’s name until he took the microphone.
Collecting his emotions, Te’o spoke of that day four years ago when a decision he made helped change the fortunes of a proud program that had lost its way.
“When I decided to come here I really didn’t know why,” Te’o said through his cracking voice. “Now I know why.”
Mike Wanbaugh is a reporter for The Goshen (Ind.) News. Contact him at michael.wanbaugh