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Solid foundation

Te'o blossomed as an athlete, thanks to family, friends and hard work while growing up in Laie

By Paul Honda


Before the Heisman Trophy consideration, long before a young man from Laie Point lined up at linebacker under the gaze of Touchdown Jesus, there was life on Naupaka Street.

In the beginning, there was pickup basketball — a bunch of little guys playing until midnight as moms and dads and aunties and uncles cheered on.

There was basketball in red uniforms, representing Laie and the North Shore. Even after making the move to Punahou, basketball was part of Manti Te'o's life.

"He played PAL basketball for Laie Park. I thought he was better at basketball," Manti's father, Brian, said recently. "Manti was not your typical athletic guy. He struggled. He was tall and lanky. He loved basketball and caught on really well."

During those early years, he also played flag football for Brian's brother, David. While he played for the Laie Raiders, he was also a water boy for his father's Pop Warner squad, the Koolauloa Red Raiders. Starting at age 5, Manti did the job for three years.

"He pushed to get better from the beginning," Brian said. "All of a sudden, he took more of an interest in football. He said, ‘Dad, I want to play football and I want to be good at it.' "

In 1999, the son got his chance. He finally turned 8, making him eligible to play for his dad in the Pee Wee Division. He suited up for practice and was in the middle of a tackling drill when something unusual happened. He brought down another kid, putting a hole in the boy's helmet with one blow.

"It was more of a weak helmet shell, I think, but it still took me by surprise," Brian recalled.

At the Te'o house on that quiet street, the development began. Offseason training with older cousins Malosi, Shiloah and Levi became a way of life. It was 1999 when Brian laid out the speed ladder.

"At first, they laughed," Brian said in a 2008 interview. "The next thing you know, everyone and their dog has a ladder."

The two-way, unmarked road fronting their home became an impromptu track site. An etched line in front of the Te'o house was the starting point.

"Ten times from the line to the wall is one mile," Manti recalled in an '08 interview. "From Siu's (Tafuna) mailbox to Robby's (Toma) house is a 40-yard dash."

Brian's brother, Ephraim, introduced "the snake," a series of hops from left to right, then right to left, through a zig-zag course.

Toma later became an All-State wide receiver before accepting a scholarship to Notre Dame with his best pal, Te'o. Manti's memories of childhood and sports revolved around the brotherhood of training with best friends.

"We have ‘hobo' dinners on the pit," he said of the front-yard barbecue. "Steak. Lobster. On game nights, we played Gestures, parents against us. That was so funny."

Dads against sons in Halo video games. The sons won every time, of course.

The victories and glory, the tragedies and defeats, nothing prepared him for life better than the love of his parents, Brian and Ottilia, and a community without walls.

"That's the thing about Laie. Everything in the fridge, the pantry, is yours. My house, Robby's house, Siu's house," Manti said during that historic '08 season. "What I love about here, it's separate from school and work. There's no other place where you can lay in the middle of the road and nothing happens to you. Everybody knows everybody. You feel safe. Family, to me, is a big thing. Without family, there's nothing. I think that's what pulls the whole community together.

"Laie is the best place to raise kids."

Brian still looks back and is amazed.

"We didn't have a clue how far he'd go," he said. "You shoot for the stars and if you miss, well, you're still in the clouds."

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