Manti Te’o will play at Notre Dame Stadium for the final time Saturday, giving Fighting Irish fans the chance to celebrate one of the best linebackers in the history of the storied program and thank him for leading the team to one of its best seasons in decades.
Expect it to be a memorable moment, but certainly not the end of Te’o’s tale at Notre Dame. Not the last time he’ll make a big play for the Irish, thump his chest and point to the sky.
“When those books are written, they’re written about championships. They’re written about the great days at Notre Dame. Certainly this has been a great year, but there is more to accomplish,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I think he would be the first one to tell you that this story is not over with. There are some more chapters to be written.”
Notre Dame fans are hoping those chapters include an undefeated season, the school’s first national championship since 1988 and Te’o getting a trip to New York with an outside shot to win the Heisman Trophy — which would be a first for the Irish since receiver Tim Brown in 1987.
Te’o said Wednesday he’s focused on winning a national championship, not personal accolades.
“I’d rather be holding a crystal ball than a bronze statue,” he said.
The game against Wake Forest (5-5) on Saturday is the primary reason Te’o returned for his senior season instead of leaving for the NFL after last season. He saw how important senior day was to his teammates and then saw how important it was to their parents when videotape of the day was shown at the team banquet.
“That’s something that money can’t buy. Money can’t buy that experience,” Te’o said. “I’ve realized that. Like I said before, I’m really excited. I’m very grateful that I’ll be able to experience that with my family.”
The Hawaiian standout said he expects his parents, Ottilia and Brian Te’o, his siblings and more than 30 other family members to attend the game and to celebrate his career. He likely will finish third on Notre Dame’s all-time tackles list and he already holds the record for interceptions in a season by a linebacker with six, but it’s his intangibles he will be remembered most for.
Kelly said he’s never had a leader such as Te’o.
“His relationship with me and the defensive coordinator and how that helps others lay it on the line and say, ‘Hey, whatever our coaches ask us to do.’ There’s just so many things,” Kelly said. “He’s a leader. He really has galvanized this football team by the way he has performed.”
Kelly said others try to emulate Te’o, and that makes them better.
“There is a mirroring effect and a trickle-down effect to the other players in the program that go, ‘I want to be like that guy,’” Kelly said. “That’s something you don’t get very often.”
It wasn’t always that way. Te’o was a hesitant leader as a sophomore, when Kelly first arrived and pushed Te’o to take command.
“He didn’t really feel it was his place to tell others how to do things,” Kelly said.
It took a while, but Te’o eventually understood that he needed to push his teammates if the Irish were going to get better.
“We call it peer accountability, to hold others to the same level that you are,” Kelly said. “Once he started to take to that kind of philosophy, you could see everyone else around him raise their level of play.”
The other change in Te’o came when he stopped trying to do too much and just focused on doing his job, Kelly said.
“I think sometimes he was feeling as though he needed to make more plays and he needed to gamble here and there because of not winning enough games. So sometimes he pressed. He knows he doesn’t have to do that anymore,” Kelly said.
It’s been a bittersweet season for Te’o, who has been outstanding on the field but dealt with tragedy off it. 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.
“Somebody told me once that the hardest thing about goodbye is that when you wake up in the morning you have to say it again when you realize they’re not there. So every morning I wake up and my girlfriend is not on the phone. It reminds me that she’s gone. That’s the hardest part,” he said.
Te’o said his Mormon faith has kept him strong.
“I may not be able to see her, I may not be able to hear her, but I know I will see her again. Sometimes I can feel her. I can feel her presence,” he said. “So that’s what gets me through.”