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.