Manti Te’o exhibited all the qualities of a powerful leader when he made his choice to play football at Notre Dame. And that makes sense when you consider that he graduated from the same Honolulu high school as Barack Obama.
Te’o could have gone to Southern Cal, following in the footsteps of Junior Seau. He could have kept up the tradition of the Punahou School, which is known as a high school feeder program for Stanford. He could have gone to BYU and stood as a symbol while letting his deep Mormon roots branch out and grow stronger.
But just as Obama does what he believes to be prudent, so did Te’o when he chose to attend Notre Dame, a Catholic university. As he does while contemplating all of his big decisions, Te’o prayed.
“I think for me that’s one of the biggest pleasures and honors that I get, to not only represent my wonderful school and my teammates … but to represent my people back home, the state of Hawaii, and to just be an example to them of somebody who made that leap of faith to leave the rock just for a few years and to find comfort in knowing that Hawaii will always be there,” Te’o said, “and that you can do a good amount of service to the state by sacrificing a few years away from home to help live your dream, and by you helping to live your dream, you help other people’s dreams seem that much more real.”
Te’o sought spiritual guidance again following last season, when he had the opportunity to leave Notre Dame and embark on a career in the NFL. Had he chosen that path, he was likely to be selected with a high draft choice and earn the riches that come with the territory.
Instead, Te’o chose to return for his senior season — a great risk because of the chances of getting injured and missing out on the NFL jackpot. And how did that work out?
Well, the Fighting Irish looked lost in Monday night’s BCS National Championship Game at Sun Life Stadium, where Te’o managed 10 tackles. But it was still a season for the ages for Te’o.
The All-American won just about every award he was eligible for except the Heisman. And it should be noted that when college football’s major award winners were brought onto the field before the game, Te’o got a rousing ovation whereas Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M got only modest applause when introduced as the winner of the Heisman, which many thought Te’o deserved to win.
“Yeah, everything I’ve done, I’ve always prayed about it and I’ve always exercised my faith and utilized that,” said Te’o, who won this season’s Walter Camp, Bednarik, Maxwell, Nagurski, Butkus and Lombardi honors to bring his major awards total to six, breaking Charles Woodson’s single-season record of five set in 1997.
“Definitely the temptation to leave school and to provide a better future for my family financially, it’s always tempting to a 20-year-old boy. And so for me, that’s something I definitely looked at. But after praying about it and talking to a lot of people about it, money has never been the reason for me doing something. It’s always been the experiences. … And the fact that in May I’m going to graduate, and I’m going to walk across that stage and get that diploma from the University of Notre Dame is definitely something that I’m very fortunate to have experienced, and to hopefully experience in the near future.”
The Notre Dame defense didn’t have such a great experience Monday — especially with Alabama dominating on the ground to the tune of 265 yards on 45 carries — but were it not for Te’o and his heroics on a weekly basis, the Irish might not have enjoyed the resurgent season that saw them thrust back into the national spotlight.
“He’s an explosive player, he makes big plays all the time, and he reads the ball very well,” Alabama left guard Chance Warmack said of Te’o. “That’s the main thing, just trying to get a hat on the hat, and just do our thing and trying to play the offense that we know how to play.”
Indeed, Te’o could have left his Notre Dame family behind after last season. But what kind of example would that have set for his family back in Hawaii? And what of those he calls family in South Bend, Ind.? To whom would they look for leadership?
None of that matters now. His days at Notre Dame will soon be in his past, but he will have left a lasting impression — even if he didn’t put quite the exclamation point on his college career that he had hoped for.
“[Losing Monday] definitely [stinks], to be quite honest, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Te’o said. “I wouldn’t do anything differently — the season, the year, my career, I’m just really blessed to be at Notre Dame.”