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Manti Te’o staying strong through tragedy

    Manti Te'o's Twitter profile.
    Notre Dame's Manti Te'o reacted after Notre Dame defeated Michigan, 13-6, in an NCAA college football game Sept. 22.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. » The profile page on the Twitter account of Manti Te’o doesn’t say he’s a Notre Dame linebacker, that he’s being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate or that he’s a Sports Illustrated cover boy. 

Instead, it features a quote from “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas: “Life is a storm. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.”

Te’o has been through a storm.

His maternal grandmother, Annette Santiago, died in Hawaii after a long illness on Sept. 11 and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died in California of leukemia several hours later. Te’o didn’t miss a practice that week, choosing to be with his teammates as the Irish prepared for their game at then-No. 10 Michigan State, even though coach Brian Kelly told him he didn’t need to be there.

Te’o calls it the hardest thing he’s ever had to do.

“To be able to operate, and to be able to try to continue with my daily routine, but knowing that I just lost a woman that I truly loved, that was the hardest thing,” he said.

The task was made even harder knowing he couldn’t attend her funeral in Carson City, Calif.. He said Lennay had made him promise he wouldn’t miss a game, instead asking him to honor her with his play.

Te’o did that. He had 12 tackles, one for a loss, and broke up two passes in the win against Michigan State. A week later, he had two interceptions, leading to a touchdown and a field goal, in a 13-6 win over Michigan in which he had eight tackles. The Irish defense didn’t give up a touchdown in the two games.

The performances caught the attention of his teammates, his classmates and college football fans across the country.

“At that time he may have been a little weak inside, but he never showed it out,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “He stayed strong. Watching him kept us going strong.”

Te’o has been the driving force behind the best Notre Dame defense in at least a decade, leading the Irish to their 4-0 start and their No. 9 ranking. He has played a role in seven of the 13 turnovers forced by the Irish, intercepting three passes, recovering two fumbles and hurrying the quarterback twice on passes that were intercepted.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco believes the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Te’o is the finest football player in college, saying he can power his way through blocks, but moves like a much smaller player.

“He’s a unique blend of being able to be kind and good and courteous and warm and friendly when he’s not inside the gates or inside the stripes, and then when he’s in there he’s an absolute warrior,” Diaco said.

Te’o’s father, Brian, believes part of that is it’s a Polynesian trait, citing Junior Seau and Troy Polamalu as examples. He also believes it’s partially related to Te’o’s Mormon upbringing.

“He understands that his actions have a direct impact on those who are watching him, and also the fact that his actions and decision-making does have a direct reflection on the family, on both my wife and I,” he said. “We both remind him constantly.”

His father said Te’o also works hard at his craft because he knows another talented athlete is working just as hard.

“He knows when he meets that person he’s going to have to be at the top of his game in order to compete with him,” he said.

Te’o has 362 career tackles and is on pace to finish third on Notre Dame’s all-time list behind Bob Crable (1978-81), who had 521, and Bob Golic (1975-78), who finished with 479.

Crable calls Te’o one of the best players he’s seen at Notre Dame.

“He has great speed. He knows where the football is,” he said. “Unfortunately for him, as far as the tackling record goes, the game has changed so much. I don’t know how anyone can get the tackles some of us old guys got just because they don’t run the ball as much.”

Kelly said what separates Te’o from other stars is he knows the names of every player on the team, even the walkons.

“He doesn’t call them, ‘Hey, 42, or 57.’ He knows each of those guys. … That’s pretty unique,” he said.

Student body President Brett Rocheleau said classmates love Te’o because he’s one of them. He takes part in campus events, he’s seen walking around carrying his backpack and talking with other students.

“Every story you hear about Manti is that he is genuinely nice guy. He’s one that is easy to talk to. He goes out of his way to carry on conversations,” he said.

The students showed their love for Te’o by chanting his name and wearing leis at the Michigan game and pep rally. Te’o jumped up in the crowd to celebrate the victory with them.

“I felt a sense of peace knowing that so many people cared about Manti instead of No. 5,” he said.

He was able to get home for his grandmother’s funeral during the bye week and said he feels rejuvenated as the Irish prepare to play Miami (4-1) Saturday in Chicago.

“I’ve never felt so strong; spiritually strong,” he said. “I could never thank the student body and the fans around the world for their all love and all their prayers and support.  I truly felt all of that, and it’s helped me to get past, help me get through these past three weeks and I’m truly grateful and I’m truly humbled.”

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