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Outstanding Senior Athlete: Manti Te’o

Andrew Owens | Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Editor’s Note: A longer version of this article was originally published in the Nov. 16 Irish Insider senior edition.

This Saturday, for one last time, Manti Te’o will make his way to the northwest corner of Notre Dame Stadium after the coin toss. As he has done on each home football Saturday, he will look up, gaze at his 8,500 classmates and exhort them to prepare for kickoff.

At Notre Dame, the students not only feed off Te’o’s actions, but the star linebacker finds inspiration in his peers as well.

“[My actions] are my way of giving back to the students,” Te’o said. “I think our success as a football team is a direct correlation with our relationship with the students. The more the students love the players, the more support we’re going to get and the more support we feel, the better we’re going to play.

“I definitely appreciate all the support we get from the students, and I feed off the energy and I know the players do too.”

The swelling of mutual admiration between the student body and Te’o exists because the Heisman candidate is one of them. He lived with them, learned with them and faced hardship with them.

“It’s been amazing to see the influence he’s had on the student body and the tremendous amount of respect the student body has for him,” said senior Lee Haruno, who attended Punahou High School with Te’o and has also lived in Dillon Hall during his time at Notre Dame. “It’s been kind of a reciprocal thing that has grown the past four years where now he’s Superman.”

But Te’o, who will suit up for an Irish home game one final time Saturday, found the path to success wasn’t always easy – or the one most traveled.

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When Te’o’s faith led him to commit to Notre Dame in the winter of 2009, he swapped sandcastles for snow shovels and left the only home he had ever known for northern Indiana. He said the transition tested his resolve.

“I was homesick and I really missed my family,” Te’o said. “Freshman year I definitely couldn’t have called this place home. It was totally different.”

He said he eventually embraced Notre Dame and decided to make the most of his collegiate experience.

“I could call this place home [sophomore year],” he said. “This year solidified the feeling of this place being my home and I’m definitely going to miss it.”

His father, Brian Te’o, noticed the change during Christmas break of Manti’s sophomore year in Hawaii.

“He came up to my wife (Ottilia) and I, and said, ‘I have to get ready to go back home,’ and my wife and I are saying to each other, ‘You are home,” Brian said. “That’s when he started to feel like Notre Dame was home. It was a place of comfort and Notre Dame has become physically, spiritually and emotionally, his home.”

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When Manti was placed in Dillon Hall leading up to his freshman year at Notre Dame, he relished the opportunity to meet new people, regardless of whether they were scholarship athletes or not.

“It was like having a normal roommate, except that he was a football player,” said Long Tran, Manti’s roommate for freshman and sophomore years. “He took his religion very seriously. I thought a football player would be partying [all the time], but he didn’t do that.

“He helped me out a lot with real-life stuff. I was shy my freshman year, but he introduced me to all his friends. … He would pick me up when I was down … and had a very positive impact on my college career.”

Manti said it was never an obligation or an extra effort to befriend non-athletes. It’s simply who he is.

“I love to make friends,” he said. “I love to include people. I don’t like people to feel excluded from anything and I have some friends that are still in Dillon who are seniors.”

Fr. Paul Doyle, Dillon Hall rector and football team chaplain, said in both roles he witnessed Manti making a difference in people’s lives.

“He doesn’t even realize what an impact he had,” Doyle said. “I know he helped some people make good choices who might’ve been inclined to be doing things they shouldn’t be doing, but Manti was in the midst and they didn’t go that way and they’re better for it.”

Doyle recalled a moment in the locker room after Notre Dame’s overtime victory over Stanford in October that exemplified the senior captain’s grace and humility.

“We come in after the game and the players are hugging each other,” Doyle said. “Manti’s over there doing that too, and then he breaks away from the pack and thanks [University President Fr. John Jenkins] for letting him come to school here and gives [Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick] a big hug. That kind of presence is noteworthy.”

Before Manti made the decision to return for his senior season, Brian researched the possibility of Manti declaring for the NFL Draft. When presented with the information, Manti asked his father for advice.

“At his age I was a dad with two kids, so I would’ve gone [to the NFL],” Brian said. “But I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Son, you are not me, and you are not in my position. You’re a young man with your whole future ahead of you.’

“He looked at me and said, ‘Dad, I want to stay. I want to experience my last year at Notre Dame.’ Given the presentation of a secure future for himself and his family, he went deeper and made a decision that was much more fulfilling: to complete his goal and get a degree from Notre Dame.”

Brian said Manti, a design major, has fully immersed himself in his academic and athletic crafts this year in ways he hadn’t always before.

Manti said the realization of impending graduation and a farewell to Notre Dame has helped motivate him.

“I try to embrace everything, experience everything and not count my days and try to make my days count and live every day like it’s my last,” he said. “I think, as a young guy, you don’t understand that because you see you have four years and you think it’s such a long time and I can postpone things and lounge around.

“When you know you have less than two months left, it puts a fire under your butt to stay involved and try to experience as much as you can because it’s going to be over.”

Irish coach Brian Kelly said Manti’s example permeates the program as young players watch the star’s every move.

“I think it’s important Manti understood [the importance of education],” he said. “Hopefully he can be the guy that says, ‘Look, you can be a great player. You can still lead your team and have a degree, and have a degree from a place like Notre Dame. … I think it’s a great case in point of a guy that understands and recognizes the value of a life versus a career.

“His life is set up because he’s got a degree from Notre Dame.”

Contact Andrew Owens at aowens2@nd.edu