August 30, 2014

Manti Te’o: A Mantle of Greatness

Following an afternoon of steady showers, the skies had opened into an all-out downpour on rain-soaked Notre Dame Stadium. Students romped with student-athletes, celebrating a dramatic goal-line stand that ended a classic, overtime victory against fellow heavyweight Stanford.

Manti Te’o stood with his arm around his coach, Brian Kelly, explaining for a national audience what had just happened. “This team will scratch, claw, do whatever it takes to win….We walked into the overtime knowing he had to stick together and execute, and that’s exactly what we did.”

There was a knowing look in Brian Kelly’s eyes. As if to say, this man next to me represents excellence. Greatness. Perseverance. Humility. Everything we want here at Notre Dame.

Much has been written and said about Manti Te’o and his tremendous football instincts. His ability to be in position, anticipate the play, read the situation, react and be there. The key tackle, the timely interception. It was never more in evidence than on his third-down stop of Stanford’s Stepfon Taylor in that goal line stand for the ages. Again and again, he makes the biggest plays in the biggest games.

From a strictly football standpoint, it’s his knowing. Knowing what’s coming next. Knowing where to be, how to react. In ways that cannot be measured by statistics, he transcends the game. He is the defender par excellence on the nation’s best defense.

But it’s his knowing about the important things of life that may be even more impressive.

In describing his decision to return for his senior year at Notre Dame, Manti mentioned family members wondering: Wasn’t reaching the NFL your dream? “I said, ‘the NFL is my goal. My dream is to have an impact on the most people possible.’”

He went on: “Money can’t buy the memories I can build here with my friends and family. When I die I can’t take a big Cadillac, a big house or a Rolex with me. But what I will take are the memories of my senior year at Notre Dame.”

For the 2012 football season, consider the dream realized. Manti’s impact, along with his teammates, has been to remind a nation that champions can also be truly decent people – with tremendous passion for doing things the right way, and caring for one another.

“There’s no better combination of person and place than Manti and Notre Dame,” says athletic director Jack Swarbrick. “He embodies so many of the value that are fundamental to this institution. Everybody he touches is a better person for being around him.”

Adds defensive coordinator Bob Diaco: “He’s the type of person you don’t replace. His worth to the team is incredible. They get an example of how to work, how to behave and how you conduct yourself on and off the field.” In describing Manti, strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo uses the term “other-centered.”

Notre Dame has always existed both in reality and as an ideal. In football, that ideal is that championship-level football can be played by real student-athletes who go to class, manage their time, graduate in four years with a meaningful degree, and leave campus ready to make a positive impact on the larger world.

And Notre Dame’s connection to the larger world is played out in numerous ways. As the place “where the church does its thinking” for one. And where various programs reach out to meet the world’s needs, from supporting global justice in Cairo to rebuilding communities in Bosnia.

Nearly 120 years ago, a five-year-old made a voyage from Bergen in Norway to Ellis Island, and went on to create a quintessential life as a successful immigrant to the U.S. Knute Rockne became the face of a Notre Dame that knew its mission could not be contained by geography, and had to go coast-to-coast, impacting millions along the way.

It’s fitting that in a season where the Irish traveled back to Europe, and criss-crossed the continent from Boston to Los Angeles to Miami, the key individual is one who crossed another ocean to become Irish. It is not too much to say that Manti brings with him the sensibilities of the indigenous Hawaiian peoples – a simple grace, more concerned with caring for friends and family than with material possessions.

Manti may not win the Heisman Trophy. (He also hasn’t tried to trademark a nickname.) Voters are distracted by shiny objects, like offensive statistics – in a game where once again, we’re reminded that defense wins championships.

But we all know. We know he truly deserves the Heisman. That he represents everything positive one could ever hope to associate with college football.

And, most importantly, Manti knows. He knows he will not be changed by winning the trophy, or by not winning it. It really doesn’t matter to him. He knows why he came back for his senior year. He is on a path to impact many other lives. If he makes millions from pro football, which seems certain, he will no doubt use it wisely to help others.

Manti knows the importance of living every possible minute, and living in the moment.
During this incredible 2012 season, coming back to be part of the Fighting Irish, being their leader…he knew he had to be there.

What Notre Dame fans know is that Manti helped turned the page to the next chapter of greatness for this University and its football program.

Manti knew.

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