Chicago Tribune (MCT)
POSTED: 4:40 p.m. HST, Nov 16, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 8:01 a.m. HST, Nov 17, 2012
At this particular practice in 1998, it was time for the Koolauloa Red Raiders junior peewee football team to work on form tackling. Players stood facing each other, about 2 yards apart. When the whistle blew, they were to collide in a spasm of gangly violence.
The drill rotated until a 10-year-old tight end and second-string middle linebacker lined up across from an 8-year-old in his first season. The 10-year-old was a returnee from a squad that lost in the national championship. The 8-year-old had been that team’s water boy, a tall kid with a flattop haircut named Manti Te’o.
The whistle blew. Te’o took a step back, then lunged forward. He hit the 10-year-old head-on.
And Manti Te’o cracked the kid’s helmet open.
A hole about the size of a softball, right in the middle.
Manti Te’o, a Heisman Trophy-candidate linebacker who wants to be remembered as one of the best ever to wear a Notre Dame uniform, plays his final home game Saturday.
This is how his journey started.
When he was 5, Manti Te’o asked his father to teach him how to play football.
He had played flag football, and he liked the uniform. When his father started coaching youth teams, Te’o wanted to wear the helmet. He saw his cousins Malosi, Shiloah and Levi play, and how good they were. So he asked.
“Are you sure?” Brian Te’o asked his son. “You know how Dad is.”
“Yeah, Dad,” Manti responded. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”
It took, at first, being the water boy. At timeouts, 7-year-old Manti sprinted out with the bottles. At halftime, he handed out orange slices. His father would bellow commands like I want these guys hydrated! and Manti obliged without complaint.
“He basically told Manti, ’If you don’t give water to these players, we lose,’ ” Malosi Te’o said. “So Manti was always 100 percent at it. He was never walking, always running to give the water. Always coming around for a second round of oranges. He always was doing more than what the average person would do.”
The next fall, when he was 8, Manti joined the team. He had begun doing pushups to prepare. When he visited the beach, he ran straight into the waves, letting them smack his face and wash away fear of the contact.
The first practice, though, was unpadded. The second would be full-bore. So his father brought Manti home and put a helmet on him.
“I remember Manti always telling us how his head was ringing the next day because Uncle Brian was whacking a pot across his helmet for like one hour straight,” Shiloah said. “Trying to tell him, ’Don’t worry, nobody is going to hit you harder than this right now.’ ”
This was how Manti and his cousins were molded. Before practice, they ran a mile. Then they practiced. After, they ran sprints. Swimming was strictly forbidden in-season because it sapped their energy.
Once, Manti and his cousins made the mistake of asking their parents if they could go to the beach, as it had been a while. The result was two hours of prepractice hitting drills. Because why not, with all this verve to spare.
“People look at Manti now and say, ’That’s just God-given talent,’ ” Malosi said. “We understand it’s because of the sacrifices he has made in his life. And Pop Warner was definitely one of those sacrifices.”
On the depth chart for that 1998 season, Manti’s name was at the top of the tight ends. He was, in Brian’s words, “my sixth lineman.” He helped block the player over the tackle, and that was it.
He still was somewhat awkward and while he played some scout-team linebacker, he never took a regular defensive snap. Brian wasn’t sure how strong his son was, if he had the capacity to be a stalwart in this environment.
“Until that day the helmet cracked,” Brian said.
The next year, Manti was the starting middle linebacker for the Koolauloa Red Raiders.
His first moment of greatness was not, strictly speaking, his.
Thanks to participation rules, 8-year-old Manti had to play a snap of defense in a playoff game. He and Shiloah lined up on punt block. The punt was snuffed and the ball bounced in the end zone, and Shiloah pounced on it. Manti pounced on him.
All season, Manti never caught a pass and never scored a touchdown he desperately wanted. So, as he and his cousin lay in the pile, Manti made a proposition.
“Please, bro, can I have the ball?” Manti asked. “So I can have a touchdown?”
Shiloah handed it over. Manti emerged, hoisted the ball above his head and celebrated all the way to the sideline.
On Saturday, he will immerse himself in a Senior Day before 80,000 fans that was a principal reason he returned to Notre Dame. It has come so fast, he said. He remembers asking former Irish receiver Michael Floyd about Senior Day, and Floyd’s reply: There’s nothing like it.
He took the first steps toward it on a plain of grass across from a school, a field on which frogs hopped around as dusk approached, with Manti and teammates kicking them through the goal posts when a hard day’s work was done.
“That was when greatness was really instilled in me,” Manti Te’o said Wednesday, “just trying to be the best in everything.”