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A natural leader

Te'o helped push Punahou to state championships on the basketball court and the gridiron

By Jason Kaneshiro


Nolan Tokuda chuckled at the recollection of trying to devise a scheme to counter Manti Te'o's dominance as the centerpiece of the Punahou defense.

"It was so unfair," Leilehua's head coach said of facing Te'o in the 2008 state championship game. "He was a man among boys. Not just athleticism and size-wise, but maturity as well and leadership."

Te'o was indeed a central figure in the Buffanblu's 38-7 win that capped his quest to help bring a title to Punahou and punctuated a heralded high school career that preceded his ascent to Heisman Trophy finalist and leader of Notre Dame's march to the BCS Championship game.

"He's lived up to the hype," Punahou head coach Kale Ane said, "which is hard to do."

By the time Te'o committed to the Fighting Irish on Feb. 4, 2009, in a signing-day event at the Blaisdell Exhibition Hall, he had twice earned All-State defensive player of the year honors and recognition as the nation's top linebacker as the recipient of the first high school Butkus Award.

Ane said Te'o compares favorably with Buffanblu great Mosi Tatupu in their demeanor and the success they enjoyed as multi-sport champions at Punahou.

"Both great guys, always giving of themselves," Ane said, "and both dominant players."

But Te'o's place in Punahou lore wasn't exactly preordained.

Te'o's parents planned early on to send their children to private schools, and Manti, the eldest of the siblings, headed to Punahou for the seventh and eighth grades.

After two years of pre-dawn commutes to school and post-sunset returns to Laie, he pleaded with his parents to allow him to stay on the North Shore and enroll at Kahuku for his freshman year.

But a few months into that year, Te'o asked for a chance to return to Punahou.

Brian Te'o, Manti's father, jokingly said he "wanted to hang him by his toes" when Manti reversed his decision, thus restarting the process of applying for admission to Punahou, "but I could tell by his eyes and his countenance that he was pretty adamant.

"After that point … I never had a single morning of trouble getting him to school. Not a single complaint coming home from school. He was so invested."

Not that the family had anything against Kahuku, where Brian coached the running backs for the Red Raiders varsity team. Te'o's father said Manti benefitted from playing for both Reggie Torres, Kahuku's JV coach his freshman year, and for Punahou's coaching staff led by Ane.

"He was able to experience a whole different coaching style, a whole different scheme and develop skills to adjust and adapt …which ended up with him being a well-rounded athlete," Brian Te'o said.

While Punahou couldn't get past Saint Louis in the ILH football standings in Te'o's sophomore and junior years, he experienced his first state championship in early 2008, when he started on a Buffanblu basketball team that edged Kamehameha-Hawaii 41-38 for the Division I title.

"He did a lot of the dirty work … I remember him being kind of a ‘glue' guy," said Punahou basketball coach Darren Matsuda, an assistant under Dan Hale that season. "You could tell he was a leader, charismatic, made a lot of the effort plays it takes to win."

That fall, with Te'o contributing as a running back as well as at linebacker, Punahou dethroned Saint Louis for the ILH title. His 47-yard touchdown run in the first quarter helped set the tone for a 41-28 victory.

"It was a counter (play). He was the single back behind me and I just kind of turned around to him before the play and I just said, ‘Manti, house this,' " former Punahou quarterback Cayman Shutter recalled. "He looks at me and just nodded his head and goes, ‘Yup.'

"And then takes the ball and goes 50 yards right up the middle, outruns the corner just striding easily into the end zone."

Three weeks later, Te'o tallied eight tackles with two sacks among his three tackles for losses in the state title win over Leilehua.

"We designed a defense where he was given the freedom to use his instincts and he could take chances," Ane said. "Everyone else had concrete responsibilities, but he could run around and take advantage of his physical abilities and mental abilities."

Tokuda said the Mules tried running an up-tempo offense to wear him down, "but it didn't matter with his motor and great conditioning. It was just him having fun out there and enjoying the moment."

Ane also noted Te'o's knack for getting teammates "to play above and beyond their abilities" among the traits that helped push Punahou to the title. So Notre Dame's run this season has a familiar look to those who shared the field with Te'o in high school.

"He provided us with vocal inspiration as well as just leading by example," Shutter said. "Almost teaching the team about how important it was to be close and looking after everybody.

"It was really clear he came back (to Punahou) with an intention and a motivation that he was there to win a championship. By the time our senior year came around it carried over and it was contagious and everybody bought into that championship attitude."

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