Nov. 16, 2012
By Lauren Chval
Manti Te’o is a hard man to get ahold of.
The senior linebacker has his days scheduled down to the minute. From class to weight-training to practice to homework, he isn’t in the business of having a lot of “me” time. Most Wednesdays since the start of the football season, he has had the responsibility of appearing before the media to discuss Notre Dame’s upcoming game.
I know all of this when I begin to schedule my own interview with Te’o – he doesn’t need a student tracking him down for yet another question-and-answer session. We meet, nevertheless, in the training room of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. Te’o comes in after practice for treatment, and I set up camp on a stool next to him. For a minute, he talks to one of the sports medicine students on his other side – asking her about the test he knew she had this week–before turning his attention to me.
It is a room full of distractions. Music plays over the speakers, Te’o’s teammates yell to one another from their various tables, and ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith is going on about how good LeBron James is. There are countless things going on around us, but there is something about the way Te’o speaks that drowns them all out. He looks at me with quiet sincerity and starts to talk as if there is nothing but our conversation that concerns him in this moment.
I ask about the media focus he’s experiencing – the Sports Illustrated cover, the avalanche of Heisman talk, the mentions on SportsCenter. That much of the attention involves the incredible sorrow of the passing of Te’o’s grandmother and girlfriend within hours of one another only adds to the weight.
“It’s a lot more stressful,” he says. “Understand that I’m under the microscope a lot more. I try not to pay attention to the camera. I think when people start paying attention to the camera they start to become fake. What you see from me is what you’re going to get. I’m not perfect.”
Te’o says all the personal attention is something that makes him conscious of staying humble, and his humility is evident when he says, “It’s been great, not just for myself, but for our team. The team has gotten the attention it deserves.
Still, he knows how much buzz he is generating. Just a few weeks ago, a story started circulating on Facebook and amongst my friends about a young Michigan girl who died of cancer shortly after the passing of Te’o’s grandmother and girlfriend. Te’o took it upon himself to write the dying girl’s family an email in his own time of grief.
That anecdote isn’t some anomaly. One of the first things I do when I meet Te’o is hand him a printed message-board post my dad has sent me that details a story of a father and his two daughters at the Oklahoma game. As Te’o was leaving the field, the father tapped his shoulder and asked him if he would give his daughters a high-five. Te’o stopped, removed one of his gloves, and handed it to the girls before stooping to take a picture with them. Last Halloween, those girls dressed as Michael Floyd and Manti Te’o.
Te’o nods as he reads, chuckling at the memory. “Wow,” he says when he gets to the end. “That’s tight. Thank you. Tell them thank you for me.
“I remember being that little child, that little kid, always wanting to just shake somebody’s hand–just have them look at me. Now that I’m in that situation where I can have that impact on little kids, I try to do it at all times.”
I try to express to him how much those moments mean not just to the people who experience them, but also to us as students. Te’o’s name is everywhere right now, as he has become the very embodiment of this University and its student body.
He tells me that is what this team is about.
“I think this is the best relationship that the students and football players have had,” he says. “We’re part of you guys. It’s not like we’re putting ourselves above you, we’re a part of you. We’re a representation of you. When I go out there, I don’t really mess with anybody else, you know? I always point to the students. My classmates. To recognize you guys for all your support. I remember those days when we would be losing and the Stadium would be empty, but still the students would be there. That’s something that I always remember–that the students always have our back.”
A year ago, there was talk of Te’o leaving Notre Dame a year early to play in the National Football League. In light of this season, I don’t think anyone has the notion that Te’o made the wrong choice, but I wonder if he ever thinks about how different his life would be if he weren’t spending this last year at Notre Dame.
“For me, my decision to come back was strictly for the experiences,” he tells me firmly. “It was strictly because I had another chance to spend a year here at Notre Dame and I couldn’t pass that up. One thing I’ve always known and believed is that money isn’t everything. Money isn’t everything. Money is just paper, and soon it’s going to be worth nothing. What is going to be worth something are the memories that I have.”
He looks at me. “Like, right here is a memory. We’re creating a memory right here.”
Some memories are harder than others.
I notice a ring on Te’o’s left hand and when I ask about it, he tells me he wears it to keep his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, with him always.
“I wish she could tell me how proud she is. I think that’s the hardest thing for me. I can’t hear her,” he offers.
He pauses, touching the ring on his finger.
“I was talking to her sister this morning, and I just wasn’t in the mood. And she asked, `Why are you so grumpy in the mornings?’ And I said, `You honestly want to know why I’m so grumpy in the mornings? It’s because when I wake up, it hits me again that she’s not here.’ When I wake up, I can’t just call her and hear her voice. When I wake up it’s not a dream. It’s reality. She’s gone.”
And out of that unspeakable grief came more memories, memories that help him withstand the searing pain of his losses.
“I think when you come to Notre Dame there’s no one memory,” Te’o says. “But definitely that Michigan game.
“At the pep rally, when I saw all the students out there with their leis on, and to see that support, it was very humbling for me. People would do this for one person. Someone they don’t know. A person they know of, but they still do it because they know that he’s in pain and he’s going through something. And that was one of the greatest experiences that I’ve had here at Notre Dame.”
Te’o is certainly aware that he is about to be facing a lot of “lasts.” As a senior, he says he approaches every game, every practice even, differently.
He jokes about how people tried to tell him to appreciate what time he had when he was an underclassmen, but warnings like that never stick. He doesn’t try to tell his teammates to appreciate the time they have left–he knows they’ll realize it soon enough. When he steps out for his last game, he knows he’s going to be emotional.
“Man, I’m going to cry. This place…there’s nothing like Notre Dame. Like, everybody says that, but I’m telling people this. I grew up a USC fan. I am a true blue USC fan. And for me to come here and fall in love with this place and tell people there’s no place like Notre Dame…”
His voice drops. I lean forward to hear him.
“I truly love this place. When I run out for the last time, I just want everything to stop. Just don’t let this game end.”
He loves the students. The students, he says, are what make Notre Dame special.
“I love each and every one of them. I love you. I love you guys for everything you’ve done for me.”
And we love him. Te’o and I agree that there has been nothing like this connection between the team and the student body. What I know, but he would never say is, that a lot of that can be attributed directly to him. He says he will miss everyone. He will miss standing in front of “that 80,000,” but he will especially miss the students.
“I’m going to come back, though,” he tells me. “I hope they remember me when I come back. I hope so.”
He hopes we remember him. From anybody else, the statement would reek of false humility. But not from this man.
I want to say, “How could anyone forget?”
Seven Heisman Trophy winners. Eleven national championship teams. The Gipper. Lujack. Montana. Rocket. Even Rudy. But I don’t know if anyone will be remembered quite like Manti Te’o.
Why is that?
Is it because Notre Dame, to the surprise of everybody outside the Irish locker room, is chasing the impossible dream of a national championship? Is it because he could win the Heisman?
I think it’s because of why Te’o decided to come back this year – for the memories. My younger brother lived in Dillon Hall with Te’o last year and often told me how the football player would leave his door open and just talk with any freshman that would wander into his room. Te’o remembers those experiences with a smile and says not being able to do that is his biggest regret of moving off campus.
“I don’t want the students to look at me as that number five. I can tell, especially with younger ones, the freshmen, when they see me they’re star struck. And I’m like, `No, don’t be like that. I’m just like you.'”
And that is how and why he will be remembered – not as a celebrity All-American football player, but as the student of Notre Dame who gave his glove to two little girls after the Oklahoma game, who sat and talked with freshmen in his dorm room, who wrote an email to a dying 12-year-old girl’s family. We will remember him for the leis we wore and the strength he showed.
But mostly, we will remember him as a part of us.