If ever an athlete leads by example, it’s Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o.
Plus, he’s an excellent football player.
When Irish coach Brian Kelly calls Te’o the ideal representative of the university, he has in mind stories like the one that initially appeared on Foxsports.com in October.
Te’o had learned that a Notre Dame fan in Detroit, a 12-year-old girl named Bridget, was dying of a brain tumor. Te’o wrote to the family, and on her deathbed Bridget’s parents spoke to her Te’o words, which read in part: “Please tell Bridget that I am her biggest fan. Thank her for me for being an inspiration to me.”
Te’o had heard of the girl’s story through a mutual friend, and he was already working through the sadness of losing both his girlfriend and grandmother, who died hours apart three weeks earlier.
Inspirational? The major awards Te’o has won this year — nearly every major defensive trophy and the runner-up spot in the Heisman voting — don’t begin to tell the story.
“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 problems, Manti is easy to see, look at his face and immediately be energized,” said Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. “That’s just the kind of guy he is.”
One who has also led Notre Dame to a 12-0 record and appearance in the BCS championship game Monday against Alabama.
It’s Notre Dame’s first shot at a title since the pre-BCS season of 1988, when the Irish won their eighth championship.
They’ve reached the final game this season with a remarkable defense led by Te’o, who came up with huge individual plays in pivotal triumphs over Stanford, Oklahoma and Southern California.
Te’o said he’s a product of family strength — his own and at Notre Dame.
Growing up in Hawaii, Te’o’s father, Brian, didn’t know football. But young Manti wanted to learn, and his dad drove him to every clinic available.
When Te’o was in New York for the Heisman, his parents were there and son kidded father about his cell-phone photography at a restaurant.
“We complain about tourists in Hawaii,” Te’o said, “and you’re taking pictures of lasagna.”
Te’o relished sharing time with family, just as he’s soaking up this final game with his Notre Dame teammates. He had considered a jump to the NFL after last season, and the money will soon be there for him as a likely first-round selection in the NFL Draft.
But when he experienced the difficult days of loss in September, Te’o couldn’t imagine a stronger bond than what he felt with his team.
“They were with me through good times and bad,” Te’o said. “I rarely have a quiet time to myself because I always have somebody calling me, asking me if I want to go to movies. Coach is always calling, asking if I’m OK or if I need anything.
“I’m always around my guys, always around my family.”