Sports

Through grief, linebacker Manti Te’o leads Notre Dame

Linebacker Manti Te’o has 87 tackles this season, nearly twice as many as any of his Notre Dame teammates.
Linebacker Manti Te’o has 87 tackles this season, nearly twice as many as any of his Notre Dame teammates.Darron cummings/Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — As Manti Te’o walked away from Notre Dame, a disastrous recruiting visit behind him, Jack Swarbrick thought he would never see the linebacker again. On television, perhaps, wreaking havoc for the University of Southern California. But not for Notre Dame. No way.

“I remember thinking distinctly when he left, ‘There’s not a chance in the world this young man’s going to come to school here,’ ” the athletic director said. “And he did.”

And that changed everything.

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It changed everything for Te’o, the Mormon from Hawaii who seemingly could not have chosen a more foreign place than a Catholic university in Indiana. It changed everything for Notre Dame, a program struggling to make its present line up with its storied past. It changed everything for a community that has embraced its team and its star in a way few have ever seen.

With three games left in the regular season, including Saturday’s against Boston College, Notre Dame is 9-0 and ranked fourth in the BCS, with a chance for a national title. Te’o has made himself into a star, with a long-shot chance at the Heisman Trophy, a nearly impossible feat for a defensive player.

It’s all that Te’o wanted from his time in South Bend, echoing the Pop Warner championship, the high school championship. And yet, it has been a year he couldn’t have imagined, the pain mixed with the pleasure, the lows doing their best to undermine the highs.

“This year,” Te’o said, “has been bittersweet.”

Difficult losses

Each blow felt a little harder. His grandfather died first, on Jan. 27, the day after Te’o’s 21st birthday. He was a man, as Te’o’s father Brian put it, “who Manti had revered ever since he was born. That was his champion.”

Four months later, it was a cousin at birth, and in September, his grandmother.

And then, six hours after Te’o had been told of his grandmother’s passing, he got word that his girlfriend, stricken with leukemia, had died, too. His parents had been set to meet Lennay Kekua in November, at parents’ weekend. His father said he believed she could one day be his daughter-in-law.

Now, she was gone.

“There’s nothing I can say to explain it unless somebody’s been there before,” Te’o said Wednesday. “Somebody told me once the hardest thing about goodbyes is when you wake up in the morning you have to say it again when you realize that they’re not there.

“So every morning when I wake up and my girlfriend is not on the phone it reminds me that she’s gone. That’s the hardest part for me. I go through it every day.”

Even with the suffering, Te’o has been at practice every day. He has been at every game, spending every moment he can with his teammates. They have embraced him. All of Notre Dame has embraced him. He has let them, because he needed it.

“I think Manti passed through the fire, through that furnace of moving from a young man to manhood,” his father said.

“I could see in his eyes the stress, could see in his eyes the heartache, and I just got overwhelmed with this immense pride that he could actually find the capacity to set his own personal suffering aside to lead a group that really meant a lot to him, to see through his obligations to them despite going through what he was going through.

“He was listening. He was actually listening during all those rides home.”

Making the call

Really, though, it seems as if Te’o should have been somewhere else. He should have been at USC, the team he followed growing up, the team a bit closer to his home. Notre Dame didn’t make any sense.

Especially not after a visit that included 13 inches of snow, a terrible game, snowballs flying everywhere from the stands — including toward the field — and Te’o dressed more appropriately for the temperate climes of his native state.

“Before this season, I’ve always wondered what life would be like if I went to USC, I’ve always wondered that,” Te’o said. “But I think after this season I don’t have that anymore. This is where I was meant to be and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I’m just grateful that I’m here.”

But it wasn’t easy. Getting Te’o to South Bend took a lot of work and a lot of airline miles, most of them racked up by former assistant coach Brian Polian, now with Texas A&M. Polian made 12 recruiting trips to Hawaii — and another two after Te’o and his best friend, Robby Toma, had committed — in about 15 months.

It wasn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds.

It got to the point where Polian was on the same flight each week from Los Angeles to Hawaii, and would get grilled by the Hawaii-based flight attendants on whether he had gotten his man.

“It was surreal,” Polian said, calling the recruitment “a once-in-a-generation-type story.”

There were the long flights, the recruiting calls made at 2 a.m. in South Bend, the little things. But in the end, Polian said, “it paid off, because we felt like this is the kind of kid that is wired for this place.”

Polian still, once or twice a week, gets thank you e-mails from Notre Dame fans.

But it still came down to Te’o’s decision.

Te’o’s parents had challenged him to make the choice a matter of prayer, and to follow through on whatever answer he received. The answer wasn’t what Te’o was expecting. It wasn’t even necessarily what he wanted, in his heart.

But he followed his faith.

“I think what people are not taking into account is the amount of courage that it took for this young man to say, ‘I’m going to go to Indiana, I’m going to go to a place where it’s not always going to be easy, but in the end I believe that it’s what is best for my life,’ ” Polian said.

Feeling of community

Te’o’s parents knew he would be successful. They didn’t know it would be like this.

Heck, Brian Te’o said, he didn’t even think Manti believed it would be like this.

The linebacker has 87 tackles this season, nearly twice as many as any teammate. He is not just one of the best defensive players in the country, he’s one of the best players overall.

And yet, as grief has marred what should be the best season of his career, he has stood by his teammates, and they have stood by him. But not just his teammates. Not just his friends. The entire Notre Dame community has massed behind him.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, really,” Swarbrick said. “The mutual embrace is so strong. It’s not just that the athlete gives himself to the community, but that the community finds ways to demonstrate how much affection they have for the athlete.”

It was never more apparent than on Sept. 22, as the Fighting Irish faced Michigan, hours after his girlfriend’s burial. As Te’o noted, they closed the casket at 9:01 in California, as the Irish were going through their walkthrough. He saw the time. He took a moment.

That night, Notre Dame responded. In the stands, thousands of fans were wearing leis. They had them around their necks. They were swinging them on their fingers. They stood out, a tangible show of love and support. It was an effort undertaken by them, not by the school, not by the athletic department.

“That’s when I knew,” Te’o said. “It was the confirmation that, ‘Hey, that leap of faith you took four years ago, this is why you came here. This is why I sent you here.’ ”

Back in Hawaii, his parents, Ottilia and Brian, watched the broadcast, tears escaping their eyes.

“We realized that Notre Dame not only appreciated him as a football player, they appreciated him as a man,” Brian said. “They appreciated him as Manti.”

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