The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



Owens: Amidst heartbreak, Te’o comforts grieving family (Nov. 16)

Andrew Owens | Friday, November 16, 2012

Two months ago, while Manti Te’o and his family grieved their personal loss, another family was in pain. Another family’s reality was about to come to a screeching halt.

Te’o is a 255-pound linebacker set to play professional football in a matter of months. Bridget Smith was a 12-year-old girl fighting a battle few can comprehend.

Their faith in God and their love of Notre Dame connected them in the worst of times.

After fighting a rare brain tumor for more than three years, “Bridget the Brave,” as her mother calls her, passed away Oct. 5.

“I don’t think I ever heard her complain once during the whole time,” said Saint Mary’s freshman Catherine Smith, Bridget’s older sister. “She’s just so special.”

At Notre Dame, Te’o was three weeks removed from the worst day of his life, when both his grandmother and girlfriend passed away on the same day. His inspiration helped motivate the Irish to a 4-0 start and the team was busy preparing for its next opponent, Miami.

But Te’o felt compelled to write to Bridget and her family.

“We received a letter from him the day we pulled Bridget off the ventilator,” said Louise Smith, Bridget’s mother. “It was a bright spot in the saddest day of our lives.”

A family friend of Bridget’s who works at Notre Dame had written to Te’o about Bridget, as he was her favorite player on her favorite team. As Notre Dame beat Michigan 13-6 on Sept. 22, Bridget watched from a University of Michigan Hospital bed wearing a lei to support her favorite player during his time of need.

“She was treated at Michigan, but she never rooted for Michigan. Not once,” Catherine said. “Ever since he was a freshman, she just loved him. She even named a stuffed monkey after him.”

When Te’o learned of Bridget’s fight, he felt compelled to touch the life of a little girl whom he had never met.

“Originally, he wanted to meet her, but it was at the beginning of the hospitalization [in Ann Arbor, Mich.,] so [the family friend] kept him in the loop on what was happening,” Louise said.

With Te’o still experiencing his losses, he poured his soul into the two-page letter to the Smith family.

“It’s something that hit me with what I was experiencing at the time … so I was going through a lot,” Te’o said. “When I was presented with that situation, I felt compelled to reach out and let them know everything’s going to be okay and that we may not understand things right now, but God has a purpose.

“The Heavenly Father has a plan for us and we just got to have faith and know that someday we’ll see all of our loved ones again.”

Although Bridget was not conscious when the family read the letter to her, they believe she could hear Te’o’s heartfelt message.

“The complete outpouring of himself and the amount of compassion and kindness and ability to give himself to someone he didn’t know was definitely what Notre Dame is,” Catherine said. “I felt like I could get up and face the day knowing that he had gone through something similar and had enough compassion to write to someone going through a hard time.”

With Notre Dame sitting at No. 3 in the national rankings with a 10-0 record and still in the hunt for a national championship, Catherine said she can’t help but think Bridget is in heaven helping her Irish.

“Before she passed away, I said, ‘Bridget, before I graduate I want a national championship and you might want to get your buddy Manti the Heisman,'” Catherine said. “I think she’s watching out for all of us.”

Contact Andrew Owens at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.