Dick Harmon: A Mormon kid from Hawaii, Notre Dame's Manti Te'o inspires many

Published: Friday, Dec. 7 2012 5:25 p.m. MST

Notre Dame's Manti Te'o urges the fans to get louder as BYU and Notre Dame play Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012 in South Bend. Notre Dame won 17-14.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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If Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o wins the coveted Heisman Trophy at a live ceremony Saturday night in New York City, he will make history.

No Polynesian in a long line of superstars in college football has ever won the Heisman Trophy. No solely defensive player has ever won the Heisman trophy. That he’s a Mormon kid at a Catholic school adds to the intrigue.

“If he gets it, this is an accomplishment that will be brought up and remembered for generations to come,” said Mark Atuaia, BYU assistant athletic director, who, like Te’o, grew up on the LDS enclave of Laie, Hawaii, and starred at Kahuku High School on the North Shore.

Football? Te'o can definitely play the game.

But it will be his leadership, humility, unwavering determination and fortitude that people will long remember about this Mormon athlete who chose to take his talents all the way from Laie to South Bend, Ind., and wear the golden helmet as a Notre Dame captain.

That kind of leadership is in his blood and is found in his Samoan roots. In a year where that culture lost an icon in NFL legend Junior Seau, Manti Te’o may have just stepped on the stage and set a new standard.

On almost a weekly basis during Notre Dame’s march through Oklahoma, Southern Cal and all other opponents to get to next month’s BCS Championship game against Alabama, coach Brian Kelly has put Te’o front and center of his team, the media and Notre Dame fans. He became the face of Notre Dame football and its top-ranked defense and undefeated run.

Te’o is a star on a team that has brought Notre Dame back to national prominence after a decade of coaching changes and disappointing seasons.

He simply delivered.

Te'o delivered with play and iconic inspiration that has moved Notre Dame faithful like few have before him. During a week in September, he lost his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, to leukemia 24 hours after his maternal grandmother died. A month later, Te’o’s comforting letter to the grieving parents of a 12-year-old girl in Detroit found its way to the media, a documented story of tears, love and reinforcement of God’s love.

Notre Dame fans responded by donning leis in Notre Dame Stadium twice this season. “You’d never see that done for an athlete at Michigan,” Notre Dame faculty member Bill Brennan told the Deseret News.

When Manti Te’o got up before a national TV audience Thursday during the 22nd Home Depot College Football Awards show at Disney World he received the Maxwell Award as the nation’s best college football player. He also collected the Bednarik Award as the defensive player of the year and the Walter Camp Foundation Player of the Year honor, the first non-quarterback to get that honor in nine years.

Watching at home in Utah was his great uncle, Bountiful assistant football coach Alema Te’o.

"I was in awe watching him on TV,” said Alema Te’o. “He just cleaned house on all the national awards. In all reality, it goes back to how his father, Brian, and his mother, Ottilia, built a foundation for him. He is a young man that is very grounded. In this age of kids that have such a different attitude that is so different from a few generations ago, it is really pleasing to see how he’s lived his life with all this pressure.”

The Te’o family has a tradition of devoted missionary service to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that spans generations and an ocean.

Manti is Alema Te’o’s great nephew, the son of Alema’s nephew, Brian Te'o, who lives on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii.

Alema’s grandfather, Taulago Te’o, is Manti’s great-great grandfather and was one of the first in a generation of native LDS missionaries called to serve in Samoa in the early 1900s.

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