Tears of joy and tears of grief. Manti Te’o has shed them both this season — at times mingled as one.
Notre Dame’s inside linebacker from Laie, Hawaii, is among the most decorated college football players in history: 2012 Walter Camp Player of the Year; winner of the Maxwell Award, Lombardi Trophy, Bednarik Award, Nagurski Award, Butkus Award and Lott Trophy; Heisman Trophy runner-up; and a consensus first-team All-American.
That he has soared despite unbearable pain — the death of his 22-year-old girlfriend from leukemia less than 24 hours after the death of his maternal grandmother from cancer — makes his season that much more amazing to fathom.
To Te’o, family cannot be understated, the family that will travel from Hawaii to watch him play for the final time in college against Alabama on Monday in the BCS National Championship Game, and the one from South Bend, Ind., intent on helping him earn the ultimate prize before he bids them farewell.
“I think any child’s greatest accomplishment is when they see the joy in their parents’ eyes, and they’re able to do something for them that they couldn’t do before, and to repay them for the countless hours and days they’ve sacrificed to make sure you live your dream,” Te’o said Thursday. “… For me to be able to go around on these circuits and see my parents and my dad take pictures of food in New York, and videotape us driving around New York — I’m like, ‘Dad, we complain about the tourists in Hawaii and them driving 10 miles per hour on the highway … and you’re taking pictures of lasagna!’
“For me, that’s a joy; that’s what life is about. It’s not about the money. It’s not about the big homes. It’s about those little experiences you get to share with the ones you love, and I’ll have that last chance as a collegiate player here in South Florida with my parents and my team.”
Te’o, a 6-2, 255-pound devout Mormon of Hawaiian and Samoan roots, leads an Irish defense ranked first nationally in scoring defense, fourth in rushing defense and sixth in total defense. He has registered three consecutive seasons with 100-plus tackles and ranks third in Notre Dame history in career tackles with 427.
His seven interceptions are tied for second in the Football Bowl Subdivision and are tops among linebackers.
But ask his teammates about his accomplishments and they gush about his character and resilience.
“He’s a tremendous leader, a brother to all of us and a man that I look up to,” outside linebacker Danny Spond said. “The way he carries himself on and off the field is quite incredible and something I try to mimic myself.
“He carried us all year and brought us to where we wanted to go.”
And when his life spiraled downward in September, “We knew it was our time to support and carry him,” Spond said. “We understood what he needed.”
Te’o chose to play at then-No.10 Michigan State just three days after the death of his girlfriend, and he did so with a fury. He had 12 tackles, one tackle for loss and a fumble recovery in Notre Dame’s 20-3 victory.
The next week, against then-No.18 Michigan, Te’o had eight tackles and intercepted two Denard Robinson passes in a 13-6 victory. His girlfriend was buried that day.
Te’o had wanted to go to the service but said earlier this season that “she made me promise ... She said, ‘Babe, if anything happens to me, you promise that you’ll still stay over there and you’ll play and you’ll honor me through the way you play. …’
“All she wanted was some white roses. So I sent her roses and sent her two [interceptions] along with that.”
Even Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M was enamored with the new friend he made during Heisman week.
“To see how he plays on the field, with how big he is and how intimidating he is, I thought he might be a guy who’d like to stuff me in a locker and maybe beat me up a little bit,” Manziel told reporters. “But to find out how good of a football player he is, and then to know how well we click off the football field and how great of a guy he is, it’s been awesome to see that.”
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco echoed those sentiments Thursday, saying Te’o was an incredible talent on the field — and an even better person off it.
“You know, on a day where maybe as a coach you might be feeling a little down or maybe slightly distracted with the world’s polls, Manti is easy to look at and see his face and immediately be energized. He’s going to be a success at whatever he does, and God willing, he’ll have a large, loving family.”