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.
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.’ ”
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.
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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