Seemingly, the entire student section was adorned in them, band members, cheerleaders — even the people who typically implore the ushers to ask people to sit down and shut up. The Lou Holtz statue, just outside the stadium, was smothered with leis in support of Manti. On the couple’s Facebook page, people took pictures of their kids in Manti’s No. 5 jersey, wearing leis.
“From Texas, from California, from Utah, from London,” Ottilia said. “One guy had his children making a No. 5 with their bodies, laying down on the lawn with their leis on,” Brian said. “I even got a picture from a Michigan fan. He was wearing his Michigan jersey, but he had a lei on. He said, ‘I love Michigan, but I support your son.’
“And I go back to that night at the Lott Awards. I should have known. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, that his intention was to just unite as many people under a single idea of family. I didn’t think it would get to this level.”
But Brian never doubted that Manti would choose to play through the tragedy in both the Michigan game and the road game at Michigan State game that preceded it.
“He said something that night in Newport Beach that kind of scared me, actually,” Brian said. “He said ‘Dad, whether I’m on crutches or in pads, I’m going to run out of the tunnel my last game, and it’s then I’m going to be able to say to Notre Dame, I gave you everything. Wherever we land, that’s where we’ll be.’ ”
In the moments after the Michigan game, Ottilia sent Manti a text with a familiar message, “Thanks for choosing me as your mom.”
“Our belief, as members of the church, is that before we came here to this Earth, that we got to choose our circumstance in life,” Ottilia said. “And I’m just so grateful, as a parent, that when Manti was up there he chose Brian and I — he chose us to be his parents. Definitely we had a lot of work to do. He was literally with us every step of the way.”
Brian and Ottilia were 19 when they got married, and Manti came along shortly thereafter.
“We were young parents,” Brian said, “and there was something about that kid that brought a sense of peace and order to what ordinarily would be a very chaotic young relationship.
“We went from teenagers to parents almost overnight. I told my wife that this kid is special. ‘There’s something about him that makes the world better.’
“When he was 2 or 3 we tried to explain to him, ‘There’s something special that you’re supposed to do. We don’t know what it is, but we’re going to do everything we can do to help you find it.’ ”
Even if that sometimes meant letting him make his most profound decisions on his own — to attend Notre Dame, not to take a two-year Mormon Mission weeks after Kelly succeeded Weis, to return for his senior year and to play through the grief and the pain.
All seemed rather disconnected at the time, but almost seem steeped in destiny now.
“We listen to his interviews on the Internet pretty regularly, and we kept hearing him talk recently about him making our dreams come true,” Ottilia said. “I think, in his mind, he’s thinking huge house, I can tell. But that’s not what our dreams look like.”
What they do look like is when Manti’s sisters got together to raise more than $3,000 so that their brother could go to USC’s football camp in eighth grade.
What they look like is the conversation between Kelly and Manti that Brian Te’o overheard on Skype just after the double tragedies hit him.
“I was so worried about him,” Brian said, “but what coach Kelly said made me know he was with family.”
What they look like is Manti Te’o doing what he promised in that Newport Beach hotel room, making a difference every day.
“As my wife suggested, our dream is to watch our children live theirs,” Brian said. “And right now I’d say we’re right in the middle of that.”
Staff writer Eric Hansen: firstname.lastname@example.org 574-235-6112
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