POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Aug 19, 2012
SOUTH BEND, Ind. » The Kahuku Stretch is a bike path about two miles long, flanked by an undulating ranch and mountains to the left and beach to the right. It's always hot and humid, even at 6 a.m., when Manti Te'o set off for a run and greeted his just-waking father upon return, shirt soaked through.
Those were mornings in paradise on summer break in Hawaii, followed by afternoon sprints up stairs or a hill. At meal time, yes, he would down fried wontons at Laie Chop Suey. Just not many. He would eat his father's delectable prime rib, but only one serving, not two. He altogether swore off his mother's desserts.
Te'o is maybe the best defensive recruit in Notre Dame history. The senior is perhaps the best linebacker in the country, and he refused NFL millions last offseason for a chance to recast his legacy. He knows that chance is his last, and he has acted like it.
"I understood there's a time and place for everything, and my time here at Notre Dame is very short," Te'o said. "I'm going to be here for less than four months. Then I'm gone. I have the rest of my life to enjoy things. This is the life I chose."
He was celebrated on the February day he signed with Notre Dame and still is, a jackhammer tackler who is a consensus preseason first-team All-American for 2012. And he has 22 victories against 16 losses and no BCS games to show for stratospheric hopes yoked to him.
To change that, Te'o changed himself. At 240 pounds, he says he is 15 pounds lighter and "twice as strong" as he was last season. He beats defensive backs in sand sprints. It is important to note that, with 261 tackles the last two years, he was pretty good before he became a jet-propelled granite slab.
"It took me back to that night at Newport Beach (Calif.) when he told me he had not given everything he had to Notre Dame," said his father, Brian, referring to the evening Te'o announced he would return for his senior year.
"Lip service can only carry you so far. He just walked the talk this time. He wouldn't even let us distract him or deter him. I turned to my wife and I said, 'He's serious.'"
Te'o answered his parents' worries about off-campus life by spending nights watching DVDs of "One Tree Hill" and "Vampire Diaries." He countered his worries about fatigue leading to injury with a strict diet featuring multivitamins and fish oil.
And he refined his voice as a leader, ditching in-your-grill rants for more deliberate deliveries.
"Without question," Irish coach Bran Kelly said, "it's now at a point where he is imposing his own set of standards on others."
Said Te'o: "When I speak, it's different. When I speak, you feel it. You feel it going through you."
Te'o felt something else recently as he watched underclassmen load televisions onto trucks headed for dorm rooms. He felt old.
Dang, he thought, this is my last year.
So here's how Te'o will define success in his last season: For Notre Dame, a BCS berth. For himself? It's a picture melding his dedication to the university and his unapologetic desire to be remembered as one of the best ever to grace it.
"A successful year for me will be when I run out of that tunnel for the last time, and people are crying," Te'o said. "That'll show me I made an impact on lives here. When I see that happening — when I see people standing and crying — that's when I'll know I had a successful year."