A trio of Mormons are trying to “win one for the Gipper.”
Before they went to Notre Dame, Knute Rockne’s famous 1928 halftime speech probably meant little to Manti Te’o, Chris Badger and Kona Schwenke. That has changed in recent years as the three football players, all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have chosen to play football for the Fighting Irish.
Te'o intercepted a pass and recorded 10 tackles as fifth-ranked Notre Dame overpowered BYU for a 17-14 victory on Saturday.
All say they were drawn by the rich tradition and pageantry of the Catholic university's football program — the golden helmets, the mural of “Touchdown Jesus” and the historic South Bend, Ind., campus. They have been welcomed by people of all faiths, especially the local Latter-day Saints, according to Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.
“All of them have felt very comfortable in the community,” Kelly said. “I don’t know what the dynamic is, but it just seems that there’s a reaching out that has taken place in their time here, and it’s made it, I think, a great transition for those kids.”
Athletically, academically and especially religiously, all three agree the experience has been positive.
“Notre Dame is a very spiritual place,” Te’o said. “It’s a place where you can practice your faith, whatever faith you believe in.”
Te’o, a 6-foot-2, 255-pound all-American linebacker, has become No. 5 Notre Dame’s emotional leader and is starting to receive consideration for the Heisman Trophy. While helping the Fighting Irish to an undefeated record of 6-0, the senior defensive captain leads the team in tackles, interceptions and fumble recoveries. He was also recently featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. His only goal for the season?
“Just win,” he said. “Do whatever it takes to win.”
Accolades aside, the Hawaiian native has touched hearts across the country while dealing with the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend. Annette Santiago, his maternal grandmother, passed away after a long illness on Sept. 12. Lennay Kekua, his girlfriend, died six hours later after a battle with leukemia. He misses his loved ones terribly but has found solace in the plan of salvation.
“Although the times are still hard, I have a lot of moments to myself where I break down, I find strength and comfort and peace in knowing I will see (Lennay) and all my loved ones again,” Te’o said in a radio interview with Jim Rome. “Until that day comes, I’m going to keep doing what I can to ensure that does happen.”
In an Oct. 3 press conference, Te’o elaborated on what the experience of losing his loved ones has taught him.
“I think if anything, this experience has truly humbled me and has strengthened my relationship with my Heavenly Father,” Te’o told the members of the media. “I’ve always said that if I’m on God’s team, I can’t be beat. If I’m on God’s team, there is nobody that can stand against me. Losing my girlfriend and losing my grandma have really strengthened my relationship with my Heavenly Father, and I’ve felt his presence in my life. I hope that has shown by the way I have played and the way I have conducted myself on and off the field. I hope to continue that through the season.”
Dallin Lewis, a Notre Dame graduate student who teaches an LDS institute class in South Bend, says everybody in the community loves Te’o.
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