Sunday, November 29, 2015         


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Home away from home

Te'o has discovered comfort and success at Notre Dame, but he has never forgotten his roots

By Dave Reardon


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. » From the North Shore to South Bend. And now, from South Bend to South Beach.

One day and one win from a national championship.

Through it all, Manti Te'o has never lost his bearings. Not through homesickness. Not through a coaching change. Not through losses — those on the football field and, later, the infinitely more important ones, the lives of loved ones.

Not through the bittersweetness of placing second in the Heisman Trophy voting.

Te'o has always steered a steady course, and it has led the undisputed leader of Notre Dame's Fighting Irish here.

You know, two things happen when you go to Notre Dame: Either you fall in love with it or you don't."

—Manti Te'o, On the Irish's recruiting pitch, which he says "is done on the field"

Regardless of Monday's outcome in the BCS title game, Te'o will still be a champion to many. Defensive players. Notre Dame's huge fanbase. Underdogs in general, since no one thought the Fighting Irish would be 12-0 today, and despite a No. 1 ranking, Alabama is favored by 10 points to beat them.

The most meaningful to him, though, are the folks back home. Today, when he looks at the sunrise over the Atlantic, he thinks of it setting over the Pacific, and his family, friends and fans in the islands.

"That's one of the biggest pleasures and honors that I get," Te'o said Thursday. "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 knowing that Hawaii will always be there.

"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."

That might sound overly idealistic. But as a role model to kids in Hawaii and elsewhere, Te'o has achieved that.

And he's helped rebuild Notre Dame's status as one of college football's greatest programs — through his stellar play on the field and his personality.

"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 polls, Manti is easy to see, look at and see his face and immediately be energized," Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said.

The top recruits are considering and in many cases choosing Notre Dame again, and the succes of Te'o is one of the biggest reasons.

"I think our sales pitch is done on the field, and I think when you get to Notre Dame, for those who have been at Notre Dame, it speaks for itself," he said. "You know, two things happen when you go to Notre Dame: Either you fall in love with it or you don't. There's no in between."

For Te'o, it was a love affair that grew with time. After he shivered in the stands on his recruiting visit when the Irish lost to Syracuse. After a rough first few weeks of practice as a freshman when he cried and questioned why he was in Indiana, so far from home.

He stuck it out, even returned for his senior season instead of cashing in. And here he is now.

Of all the turning points, Te'o points to last June when asked for an epiphany for this team. His team.

"We had a pretty hard conditioning workout in the summer," Te'o said. "And our coach gave us the option of doing the day's lift in the weight room. … He said, ‘I understand that a lot of you are going to be tired and exhausted after this workout.' And indeed we were, but every single one of our players slowly worked their way into the weight room and did their lift, and nobody asked anybody, nobody forced anyone. But the leaders went and the rest followed."

Among those leaders, of course, was Manti Te'o.

And he will lead them onto the field, one more time, in the biggest game of their lives.

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