Te'o on Senior Day

Manti Te'o: The Notre Dame Linebacker Unplugged

Nov. 20, 2012

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From the North Shore of the island of Oahu to South Bend, Ind., Manti Te’o cuts an unconventional figure. Here is a Mormon of Polynesian descent attending college at America’s foremost Catholic university. A Hawaii native who chose to attend school six time zones east in northern Indiana. A gentle soul who smashes into ball carriers like a 20-foot wave on the gridiron. A defensive player who is being considered for the Heisman Trophy. Below is a compilation of facts, anecdotes and details on Notre Dame’s No. 5 (the defensive version), who has played a pivotal role in the Irish’s undefeated season.

Key Stats

Full Name: Manti Malietau Louis Te’o
Date of Birth: January 26, 1991
Place of Birth: Laie, Hawaii
Parents: Brian and Ottilia Te’o
Siblings: Sisters BrieAnne, Tiare, Eden and Maya; brother Manasseh
Major: Graphic design
GPA: 3.3
Size: 6-foot-2, 245 pounds
Dorm: Dillon Hall (first three years)
Twitter: @MTeo_5
Below his avatar Manti includes a quote from Alexander Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo”: “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.”

More Stats

— Leading tackler and leader in interceptions for the nation’s only unbeaten team (12-0) and the second-ranked scoring defense (10.33 points per game)
— 103 tackles (52 solo, 51 assisted), 8.58 per game
— seven interceptions (ranks third in the nation at 0.58 per game; overall, only Phillip Thomas of Fresno State has more, with eight)
— five-and-a-half tackles for loss
— two fumble recoveries for eight yards (one vs. Navy in Dublin, one at Michigan State)
— one-and-a-half sacks (one for 13 yards at Oklahoma, of Landry Jones)

— 427 tackles, third all-time in school history behind Bob Crable (521, 1978-81) and Bob Golic (479, 1975-78)
— Joins Crable as only Notre Dame players to record 100 or more tackles in three straight seasons
— 63 tackles as a freshman, third in school history behind Bob Golic (82 in 1975) and Ross Browner (68 in 1973); 57 of the 63 tackles came in the final seven games of season
— Has started past 47 games, beginning with the fourth game of his freshman season, at Purdue (longest streak of any linebacker in the country)

Notre Dame ranks second in the nation in scoring defense (10.33 points per game) and ranks in the top 19 nationally in four other defensivecategories: fifth in rushing defense (92.42 yards per game), sixth in total defense (287.25 yards per game), 12th in pass efficiency defense (105.58) and 19th in sacks (2.75 per game). Te’o leads the Irish in tackling at 8.58 per game, three and a half more per game than the squad’s next-most prolific tackler, Zeke Motta (5.09 per game)

Memorable Dates

— January 26, 1991 . . . Manti Te’o is born

— November 22, 2008 . . . On a frigid cold (28 degrees) afternoon in South Bend, Notre Dame loses to lowly 2-9 Syracuse during Te’o’s recruiting trip. The weather is so brutal–Te’o had arrived in shorts and flip-flops–that the visiting recruits watch the second half from an inside lounge.

— December 5, 2008 . . . Te’o receives the inaugural national high school Butkus Award, given to the nation’s outstanding prep linebacker, in Chicago. His parents make a side trip to South Bend to get their first glimpse of Notre Dame.

— February 3, 2009 . . . On the day before National Signing Day, Te’o feels certain that he will sign with USC. Then his English teacher at Punahou High School shows the class the 1989 film “Dead Poets’ Society.” Te’o prays, receives a few “signs,” and changes his mind to Notre Dame.

— February 4, 2009 . . . Te’o shocks most observers when, at a nationally-televised announcement, he selects Notre Dame over USC, UCLA, Stanford and BYU.

— September 5, 2009 . . . Enters first college game at the start of the second defensive series early in the second quarter versus Nevada. On his third snap Te’o tackles Wolf Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick after an 11-yard gain on third and 15 for his first collegiate tackle.

— September 25, 2010 . . . Compiles a career-high 21 tackles in a 37-14 home loss to Stanford.

— December 11, 2011 . . . Te’o announces that he will return to Notre Dame for his senior season.

— September 15, 2012 . . . Te’o makes a season-high 12 tackles as the Irish knock off 10th-ranked Michigan State 20-3.

— September 22, 2012 . . . Te’o makes a pair of interceptions as Notre Dame holds 18th-ranked Michigan without a TD in a 13-6 victory for a 4-0 Irish start.

— October 27, 2012 . . . Te’o cements 30-13 win at eighth-rated Oklahoma with late, diving interception.

— November 8, 2012 . . . Te’o is named to the Capital One Academic All-District V team by CoSIDA based on his 3.3 GPA and will appear on the national Academic All-America ballot.

— November 15, 2012 . . . Te’o is named one of five finalists for the Bronco Nagurski Trophy presented to the best defensive player in the country by the Football Writers Association and the Charlotte Touchdown Club (winner announced Dec. 3). Te’o also is named one of eight semifinalists for the Lott IMPACT Trophy (winner announced Dec. 9 in Newport Beach, Calif.)

— November 17, 2012 . . . Te’o is named one of four finalists for the Rotary Lombardi Award honoring a lineman who displays courage, character and team spirit on and off the gridiron (winner announced Dec. 5 in Houston).

— November 17, 2012 . . . Te’o makes six tackles in Notre Dame’s shutout win over Wake Forest (Notre Dame’s first shutout victory since 2009) as Irish finish unbeaten at home in a season for the first time since1998.

— November 18, 2012 . . . Te’o and his 11-0 Irish team are ranked number one in the Associated Press, ESPN/USA Today and Bowl Championship Series standings–for the first time in any of those polls since 1993.

— November 19, 2012 . . . Te’o is named one of three finalists for the Chuck Bednarik Award that goes to the top defensive player in the country and one of three finalists for the Maxwell Award that goes to the top player in the country, both as chosen by the Maxwell Football Club (winnersannounced Dec. 6 at ESPN College Football Awards Show).

— November 20, 2012 . . . Te’o is named one of five finalists for the Butkus Award that goes to the top linebacker in the nation (winner announced the first week of December).

— November 24, 2012 . . . Te’o makes his seventh interception of the season (most by an FBS linebacker since 2000) and also tops the 100-tackle mark in a season for the third straight year as Notre Dame completes a perfect 12-0 regular season with a 22-13 win at USC.

— November 25, 2012 . . . Te’o and his 12-0 Notre Dame team rank atop the polls for a second straight week, the first time since 1989 the Irish have ranked number one in consecutive weeks.

Recruitment (Part I)

Former Notre Dame assistant coach Brian Polian took 11 trips in a 15-month span to see Manti Te’o (or watch him play), according to Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports. Each visit would have been roughly a 8,600 mile roundtrip for Polian.

In 2008, Te’o’s senior year at Punahou High School, former Irish head coach Charlie Weis flew to Honolulu during Notre Dame’s bye weekend to watch Te’o play. Because it was a dark period, Weis was unable to have any personal contact with the player who would be named the USA TODAY national Defensive Player of the Year. Weis simply watched Punahou’s game and then boarded a flight back to Chicago.

Of course, lots of institutions were intrigued by Teo’s talent–he stopped counting scholarship offers at 29–but no schools east of the Rocky Mountains appeared to have a viable chance at landing him. Brigham Young was a finalist, as Te’o is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon). There is, in fact, a BYU satellite campus (BYU-Hawaii) located in Te’o’s hometown of Laie.

USC appeared to be the favorite for numerous reasons. First, no school had been more successful on the gridiron over the previous half decade. USC happened to be Te’o’s favorite team as a child. No mainland campus, except for UCLA’s, was as readily accessible by air to the islands. And finally, USC had a rich history of talented defensive players of Polynesian descent, from Junior Seau to Troy Polamalu to Rey Maualuga. Each one an All-American, the first two NFL Hall of Famers (and Polamalu will be).

Finally, there was Te’o’s recruiting trip to South Bend on the fourth weekend of November.

On the Friday he arrived, an unseasonably early snowstorm blanketed South Bend, though Manti stepped off the plane in board shorts and flip-flops. The following day, Notre Dame suffered one of the most ignominious defeats of the Charlie Weis era, losing to a 2-9 Syracuse team that had fired its coach, Greg Robinson, earlier in the week. The 28-degree weather, conditions so brutal that the visiting recruits watched the second half of the game indoors on TV, only exacerbated the misery of the 24-23 loss. As did the sight of students tossing snowballs at the Irish football team.

It was a nadir during a month in which the Irish would play five games and lose four of them.

However, with a 6-6 record the Irish accepted an invitation to the Hawaii Bowl. When Te’o and his parents went to watch Notre Dame practice before the Christmas eve contest in Honolulu, the entire team lined up to shake his parents’ hands. That, he later said, impressed him.

“He maybe shouldn’t have been playing as a freshman . . . he probably would tell you that he missed way too many tackles.” –Brian Kelly, Irish Sports Report, June, 2011

Freshman Season

Manti Te’o first entered a collegiate game on Notre Dame’s second defensive series of its 2009 season opener versus Nevada. On third and 15 for the Wolf Pack, Te’o blitzed the pocket but overran Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick (now with the San Francisco 49ers) who headed straight upfield. Te’o chased down Kaepernick from behind and caught him after an 11-yard gain.

After playing, but not starting, his first three games, Te’o was finally installed as a starter versus Purdue. He twice recorded double-digit tackles as a freshman, both against Pacific-10 (at the time) schools: Washington and Stanford (10, both games). In fact, Te’o plays very well against Pac-12 opponents, having reached double-digit tackles six times in his career against them.

Te’o Versus Preseason Heisman Candidates in 2012

Sept. 15, at 10th-ranked Michigan State and RB Le’Veon Bell: A season-high 12 tackles and one fumble recovery. Bell held to 77 yards on 19 carries and the Spartans, held to one field goal, never mounted a serious touchdown threat.

Sept. 22, 18th-ranked Michigan and QB Denard Robinson: Eight tackles and a career-high two interceptions. Robinson, celebrating his 22nd birthday, threw a career-worst four interceptions and called it “the worst game of my career.” It was also the first game of the Robinson era in Ann Arbor in which the Wolverines failed to score a touchdown.

October 27, at eighth-ranked Oklahoma and QB Landry Jones: Eleven tackles, one sack for minus-nine yards, and an interception. Jones did complete 35 of 51 passes for 355 yards, but he had no touchdowns. The 13 points the Irish allowed equaled the second-lowest total the Sooners had scored at Owen Field during the Bob Stoops era (TCU held them to 10 points in a 17-10 win on September 3, 2005). The Irish did give up their first rushing touchdown of the season, in their eighth game, to backup quarterback Blake Bell, alias “The Bell Dozer.”

Decision to Remain for Senior Year

In the pre-dawn hours before the first day of spring practice, Manti Te’o saw a shooting star. “It was a great way to start off my morning,” Te’o told Al Lesar of the South Bend Tribune. “Knowing I’m going to graduate. I made the right decision for me.”

“My coming back wasn’t to prove how I gave everything up,” Te’o told Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times. “It was to show how special this place is. No second-guessing. None. Whatever happens, happens. I told my parents, after my last home game against Wake Forest, whether I come out in pads or on crutches, it’ll be worth it.”

“Ever since I was young I understood the whole meaning of life isn’t how much money you accumulate, how much fame you experience, it’s how many lives you touch, how many faces you bring smiles to. I see myself back in Hawaii doing something in the community to improve the lives of young children. Everything I’ve done is to prepare myself to give back.”Manti Te’o on life after football, Chicago Sun-Times, August 29, 2011

Bridget Smith

Three weeks after Manti Te’o lost two women, his grandmother and girlfriend, to diseases within hours of one another on the same day, he sat down and wrote a letter to a couple who were enduring a similar suffering. Brian Smith is a Notre Dame alumnus and his wife, Louise, a graduate of Saint Mary’s College. The Smith’s 12 year-old daughter, Bridget, was in the last throes of her battle with leukemia when a mutual friend told Manti about the Smiths.

Unprompted, Te’o wrote a letter to Bridget’s parents. All he knew was that the girl had leukemia and that she was a fan of both the Irish and him. “My whole thing was just to reach out and let them know I’m here,” Te’o told Greg Couch of Fox Sports. “And I think it helped ease my pain, too.”

The email letter arrived in the Smiths’ inbox on the morning of Oct. 5. They had already planned to disconnect Bridget’s ventilator that afternoon. “We opened the letter that morning, and it was just a bright spot on the saddest day of our lives,” said Louise Smith. “We read it to her (Bridget was in a coma), we shared with her what it said.”

The story only became public because a friend of the Smiths contacted Couch about the letter. He then contacted Notre Dame and wrote a column detailing the event.


Manti Te’o was born and raised in Laie, a town of approximately 6,000 on the remote northwest shore of Oahu, the Hawaiian island that is also home to the state capital, Honolulu. The town is comprised mostly of Mormons as it became a settlement for members of that faith in 1865. The campus of BYU-Hawaii is situated there. Manti grew up four houses down from fellow Notre Dame teammate Robby Toma, a wide receiver. The two have been friends since kindergarten. Irish defensive end Kona Schwenke grew up one town over from the pair.


Manti Te’o attended the Punahou School, a prestigious private school located in Honolulu in the foothills of the verdant Koolau Mountains. A coeducational, K-12 institution, Punahou has an enrollment of approximately 3,760 and is the largest independent school in the United States.

The school was founded in 1841, more than a century before Hawaii was granted statehood (1949). Alumni include professional golfer Michelle Wie, former NFL players Mark Tuinei and Mosi Tatupu, and of course, President Barack Obama.

In his sophomore season at Punahou, Te’o was named first-team all-state despite playing in only four games due to a broken leg.

As a junior he was named the state’s player of the year by both Gatorade and the Honolulu Advertiser after compiling 90 tackles, five sacks and rushing for 400 yards and 10 touchdowns.

In his senior season Te’o was named the national Defensive Player of the Year by USA Today. He had 129 tackles, 11 sacks and three interceptions, but more importantly, led Punahou to its first state championship in school history.

Defensive Players in Heisman Trophy Voting (Since 1980)

2011 . . . Tyrann Mathieu, LSU, CB 5th
2009 . . . Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska, DL 4th
1997 . . . Charles Woodson, Michigan, CB/PR Winner
1992 . . . Marvin Jones, Florida State, LB 4th
1991 . . . Steve Emtman, Washington, DL 4th
1986 . . . Brian Bosworth, Oklahoma, LB 4th
1983 . . . Terry Hoage, Georgia, S 5th
1980 . . . Hugh Green, Pittsburgh, DE 2nd

Notre Dame Defensive Players in Heisman Trophy Voting

1977 . . . Ross Browner, DE 5th
1975 . . . Steve Niehaus, DT 12th
1971 . . . Walt Patulski, DE 9th
1969 . . . Mike McCoy, DT 6th

Locker Trinket

Inside his locker Manti Te’o keeps a football that was signed by eight-year-old Trey Sedlack. The son of one of Teo’s graphic design professors, Sedlack and Te’o have become friends. When Manti learned that young Trey had twice intercepted passes and returned them for touchdowns in his flag football league, he exclaimed, “Trey Sedlack, you’re my hero!”

At the time Te’o had not yet had an interceptions in three seasons for the Fighting Irish.

Young Trey, with utter sincerity, obtained a commemorative Notre Dame football (presumably with his father’s help) and autographed it for his older gridiron counterpart. “To Manti, From Trey,” reads the inscription on the football. “I hope you get a pick-six.”

As Pete Thamel recounted in an article on SI.com, Te’o keeps the football in his locker at Notre Dame Stadium and touches it before every home game. He has yet to record a pick-six, but Te’o does have a team-high six interceptions this season.

“I want my teammates to understand that when No. 5 says something to you, that means it’s very important because he doesn’t talk a lot. If I’m saying something to you, it’s going to help you.”Manti Te’o, Chicago Sun-Times, August 2012

Being Vocal

There is a “C” on the front of Manti Te’o’s jersey, signifying his status as one of Notre Dame’s team captains (tight end Tyler Eifert, defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore and offensive tackle Zack Martin are the others). However, Te’o prefers–has always preferred–to lead by example rather than with words.

“I think it’s a Polynesian thing, “Te’o told Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this summer. “We’re very quiet people. We’re hard-working, but we’re very quiet.

“I don’t want to be one of those guys that, when I speak, everyone just rolls their eyes and says, ‘Oh, it’s the same old Manti, same old things.’ When I speak, it’s different. When I speak, you feel it.”

Twice in his four seasons Te’o has noticeably shared his feelings on game day with teammates. As a sophomore before the team’s final regular-season game at USC, Manti stood up in the locker room before the game and challenged the seniors to make a statement. The Irish, after all, had not beaten USC since 2000.

“I told them that history is written by the victorious,” Te’o told Bill Knight of the El Paso Times. “I told the seniors, what legacy will you leave behind? Will you be just another class who lost to USC? Or will you be the senior class that jump-started this program.”

The Irish won that rainy night in the Los Angeles Coliseum, 21-16.

Earlier this autumn, in the pouring rain and in overtime versus Stanford, Te’o addressed his defensive teammates, all of them with their feet in the north end zone, just before the Cardinal lined up for a potential game-tying touchdown on fourth and goal from the one-yard line. “I love you guys, no matter what happens,” Te’o told his teammates.

The Irish stopped Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor on fourth down and preserved their undefeated season.

“I cannot imagine this journey without him being a part of it. I’m so blessed.”Manti Te’o, on teammate Robby Toma, Irish Sports Report, June 2011

Te’o and Toma

Manti Te’o and Robby Toma, Notre Dame teammates, have been best friends and neighbors since kindergarten. They grew up four houses from one another in Laie.

“That’s my twin,” Te’o will say of Toma, who is five-foot-nine, 185 pounds and decidedly not Polynesian.

Toma’s mother, Tammy, drove both boys to school for the one-hour drive each way to Punahou. Although Toma was nowhere near as highly recruited as Te’o, savvy college coaches knew that they were best friends. Also, that Te’o was an advocate for fellow Hawaii prep players (he made his announcement at a prayer breakfast in which numerous college-bound scholarship players were all guests).

Hence, Toma received scholarship offers (coincidentally, to schools that were also heavily recruiting Te’o). Robby verbally committed to UCLA, but when Manti announced for the Irish, the Bruin coaches badgered him to persuade Manti to reconsider, according to a recent story published in the New York Times.

Then, as the story goes, the fax machine that would allow Toma to send his letter of intent to Westwood broke. Given time to reconsider, Toma phoned former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis and said, “I want to know if you want me for me.”

Weis assured Toma that he saw him playing a Wes Welker-type role, and whether or not that was sincere or simply good salesmanship, Toma signed with the Irish. NBC color analyst Mike Mayock rarely goes an entire broadcast without extolling Toma, who has 56 career receptions, for his precise routes and sure-handedness.

“That dude has done so much for me,” Te’o told Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune. “Not only being here and being a constant reminder of home, but keeping me on track, keeping me focused. I don’t call him my best friend. I call him my brother.”

John Walters, a 1988 Notre Dame graduate, is originally from Red Bank, N.J. He has worked as a sports writer at The Daily (the iPad-only publication), Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports and AOL Fanhouse-and is the author of “Notre Dame Golden Moments: 20 Memorable Events That Shaped Notre Dame Football” and “The Same River Twice.” He also assisted Digger Phelps in authoring “Basketball for Dummies.”