Published August 25, 2010
SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Manti Te'o left the beautiful vistas, the sand and the ocean of his native Hawaii for a long journey to Indiana, where he's found peace and a new home as the leader of Notre Dame's defense.
As a Mormon, there is much more to his life than just knocking down ball carriers as a linebacker. There is self-discovery, sacrifice and an inner discipline.
"Faith is a high priority up here," Te'o said of Notre Dame, a Catholic institution. "Coach Kelly said no matter what your religion, it's a very special place and you can grow spiritually here."
A highly regarded prep recruit from Punahou High School — a guy named Barack Obama attended the same school — Te'o came to Notre Dame despite the lure of places closer to home like, say, Southern California. And after an adjustment period, he made an impact last season when he started 10 games and had 63 tackles, the third-best total by a Notre Dame freshman.
"I've always said it was a hard decision for me to leave home," Te'o said. "Leave all my friends and my family and come all the way here. Usually guys from Hawaii will go somewhere near home, but for me I stepped out of my comfort zone and blazed my own trail.
"I learned that I'm more independent than I thought I was. I can depend on myself. I can clearly just be my own man. It took some time, but I had to find myself here, just be comfortable and make this my home."
After that first season when the Irish finished 6-6 in what would be coach Charlie Weis' final campaign, Te'o had another difficult decision — continue with football or go on a Mormon mission. In December, he announced he would come back to school and play for new coach Brian Kelly.
"Right now it's just all football, helping my team win," he said.
And that comfort level, both on the field and in South Bend, made staying easier. He attends a nearby Church of Latter Day Saints.
"It's been great, been my home away from home," he said. "It reminds me of home because no matter where you go, the church is the same everywhere."
Te'o will be in a middle linebacker spot in the Irish's 3-4 defense this fall and he'll be in charge of barking out defensive signals to his teammates. At 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, Te'o's physical attributes jump out, but so does his ability to take control and demand respect.
"You say, 'OK, he can do the job,'" defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. "The guy might be heck of a player, but we're relying on him to do some of the communication. So if you get a guy out there who is a little mousey, nobody can really hear what he's supposed to do. One of the biggest things he's giving us right now is he's a demonstrative communicator."
So Te'o has shown he can do what the Irish need, both physically and mentally, and not be worn out by either responsibility. The two must mesh in the 3-4 defense.
"He's got energy and passion," Diaco said. "His wind is up. If you're looking at the full group in terms of their cardiovascular, he's one of the top guys. So he's in condition where he's not taxed."
Te'o is very aware of the history of Notre Dame and its great teams and players. Kelly has reminded his players that they carry a responsibility for both past and future.
"He just told us that tradition is important and nice, but it's nothing if we don't honor the guys who came before us," Te'o said. "I feel in order to be a great football player, you have to play for something beyond yourself. Coach Kelly has helped us realize that. We can play for something bigger than ourselves, which is Notre Dame."