Manti Te'o: A career that has come full circle

By Eric Hansen

South Bend Tribune

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 16 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

Editor's note: This piece from the South Bend Tribune takes an in-depth look at the collegiate football career and personal life of Notre Dame star linebacker and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Manti Te'o. It was originally published in the South Bend Tribune prior to last weekend's contest against Stanford. Republished with permission.

It never felt like a chance meeting, although it probably appeared that way from the outside looking in.

Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te’o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes. They could have just as easily brushed past each other and into separate sunsets. Te’o had plenty to preoccupy himself that November weekend in Palo Alto, Calif., back in 2009.

His Notre Dame football team hadn’t won since Halloween, and a three-game losing streak, that included seismic home setbacks to Navy and Connecticut, was pushing Irish head coach Charlie Weis out the door after five seasons, albeit with a seven-figure financial settlement set to kick in.

Weis was the man who, in the recruiting process, promised Te’o’s parents that he would take care of their son 4,400 miles away, that he would make sure he graduated and really nothing else, nothing that had anything to do with football anyway.

And once Te’o’s 11th-hour shift away from USC and to Notre Dame took hold, Te’o’s still-confusing leap of faith hinged upon every subsequent word that came from Weis.

The part that stung the most for the Laie, Hawaii, product was that there was nothing he could do in ND’s upcoming clash with Stanford that could reverse the process. His only anchor was about to be set adrift.

There had been delusions by some observers, going into the ’09 season, that the freshman linebacker would be so advanced, so transformational, so immune to growing pains and flat spots in the growth curve that he could help launch the Irish back into a cycle of national prominence.

Instead, it was a school with an even smaller recruiting pool and a less-decorated football tradition that prevailed, 45-38, in what turned out to be Weis’ last game. That same school, Stanford, then proceeded to smack around the old stereotype of needing to compromise academic standards in order to climb up on college football’s biggest postseason stages.

Te’o would start the game on the bench and finish it with a new career high in tackles, with 10.

This Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium, three years later and half a continent away, Stanford and the Irish meet again, this time with Notre Dame ascending and Te’o right in the middle of the uprising.

The Cardinal (4-1), ranked 17th, have won three straight in the series and have pushed around the Irish in the process. ND (5-0), which started the season unranked, has pushed itself into the cusp of the national title conversation.

For the first time this season and seventh time in Te’o’s career, his parents, Brian and Ottilia, will be in the stands for the game — along with the youngest of his five siblings, 6-year-old brother Manasseh.

“They’re watching you and they're watching someone who they've given everything they have to live his dream,” Te’o said earlier this week.

“My dream is to help them in their dream, too. So, it's always exciting. It's going to be a special occasion to see them in the stands.”

And Manti Te’o is convinced the beautiful stranger will be watching too Saturday, somehow.

Lennay Kekua was a Stanford student and Cardinal football fan when the two exchanged glances, handshakes and phone numbers that fateful weekend three seasons ago.

She was gifted in music, multi-lingual, had dreams grounded in reality and the talent to catch up to them.

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