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

The plan was for Kekua to spend extensive time with the whole Te’o family when upwards of 40 of them came to South Bend in mid-November for ND’s Senior Day date with Wake Forest.

“They started out as just friends,” Brian Te’o said. “Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there. But within the last year, they became a couple.

“And we came to the realization that she could be our daughter-in-law. Sadly, it won’t happen now.”

About the time Kekua and Manti became a couple, she was injured in an auto accident. There were complications during her recovery. And it was also during her recovery that it was discovered Kekua had leukemia.

“That was just in June,” Brian Te’o said. “I remember Manti telling me later she was going to have a bone marrow transplant and, sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. From all I knew, she was doing really, really well.”

Kekua, who eventually graduated from Stanford, was, in fact, doing so well that she was released from the hospital on Sept. 10. And Brian Te’o was among those congratulating her via telephone.

Less than 48 hours later, at 4 a.m. Hawaii time, Kekua sent a text to Brian and Ottilia, expressing her condolences over the passing of Ottilia’s mom, Annette Santiago, just hours before. Brian awakened three hours later, saw the text, and sent one back. There was no response. A couple of hours later, Manti called his parents, his heart in pieces.

Lennay Kekua had died.

In a Newport Beach, Calif., hotel room last December, Brian Te’o pulled out the papers with the numbers Manti had asked him to compile, figuring it was only a formality in what seemed like an obvious decision to go pro a year early.

Manti and his parents had all flown to California for a banquet honoring the Lott Impact Award finalists, but at the top of the agenda was putting the finer points on how to break the news to ND head coach Brian Kelly and the rest of the college football world that Te’o’s junior year at the school would indeed be his last.

Instead, it was Manti who had to break the news. In the days leading up to this moment, BrieAnne Te’o was among the voices whose words pervaded in Manti’s thoughts.

The oldest of Manti’s four sisters asked him point blank over the phone, “Wasn’t it your dream to go to the NFL? Then go.” But as the words fermented and mixed with Manti’s prayers, he came to what sounded like a chance decision, at least from the outside looking in.

“The NFL is my goal, not my dream,” he told his parents. “My dream is to have an impact on people. I think I'm doing that, and I'm not finished yet.”

Brian’s and Ottilia’s pride overran their tear ducts as the surprising decision sunk in.

“I never said it to Manti, but I did wonder, ‘Man, what more can you do?’ ” Brian said. “And then on Sept. 22, I knew. We all knew.”

That was the night of ND’s clash with Michigan, the first home game after Santiago and Kekua had passed. In fact, Kekua’s funeral was held in California earlier that morning.

Brian and Ottilia were back in Laie, watching the game on TV, and overwhelmed with emotion before the opening kickoff.

“They kind of panned out and took a wide view of the stadium,” Brian said, “and all you could see from corner to corner on my television were these leis. They were twirling on people’s fingers and I turned to my wife and I said, ‘That’s for your son.’ ”

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