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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

Alema Te'o's father Uiva had 17 children, nine boys and eight girls, and Manti Te’o’s grandfather Ima was the oldest of those 17 children. Alema Te’o was the youngest brother. In the '50s, Uvia brought his family across the Pacific Ocean to the United States and that family became one of the first generations of Samoans to migrate to the mainland, settling in the San Francisco Bay area. In the '50s, some of Manti's uncle's — Lueli, Ma'a, Mafi and Filaga Te'o — played at Mission High School from 1955 to 1958, where they won two football championships. Uncle Taimane Te'o was an all-state linebacker for Castlemont High in the city of Oakland in the mid-'60's.

Manti’s grandfather, Ima Te'o, and uncle Lueli Te'o, Alema’s eldest brothers, were among the first group of missionaries of Samoan decent who left the mainland to return to Samoa to preach the gospel for the LDS faith. Manti’s uncle, Lueli Te’o, served as an LDS mission president in Samoa.

The honors for Manti Teo this week are a culmination of acts by many before him. Teo comes from a long list of athletes from Laie, on the North Shore, players who also excelled but never got that kind of recognition. Athletes like Atuaia, at one time Hawaiis most dominating running back, and his teammate, BYU and NFL tight end Itula Mili, and Ute star Kautai Olevao to mention a few.

“Manti’s pedigree in football was established by many of his relatives before he ever came along,” said Atuaia, who was a sophomore running back at Kahuku when Manti’s father Brian was a senior fullback. “If Manti wins the Heisman, it will be amazing, something to remember in Laie for all time, just like we remember Ty Detmer in Provo when he won it at BYU. This is a big deal to many people.”

Manti’s presence as a leader is not an act, said Atuaia. “His parents have done an outstanding job of raising him as a young man and he’s been in that capacity since a young age and it's enhanced since he came to South Bend. That heightened scrutiny will continue.”

Alema Te’o remembers how Manti began drawing attention when he came to the All-Poly Football camp in Utah as an eighth-grader. After that, recruiters from all over the country came to see him. That attention resulted in more than 40 Division I scholarships awarded at the camp this past year to athletes who attended. Because of Manti Te’o, the camp has exploded in recent years.

When Manti chose Notre Dame over his favorite team, USC, his relatives were surprised.

“Obviously we all knew Notre Dame was a Catholic school and a long, long ways from his home," recalled Alema Te'o. "I remember talking to his dad when Manti came home from his recruiting trip and all he could talk about is how cold it was over there. But he chose to sign there.”

That he’s had such an impact on and off the field in South Bend is no surprise to the people who know him.

Said Alema Te’o, “It was out of the box for everybody but obviously it was for the best and I think he’s made such an impact not only (for) the people at Notre Dame but for the LDS Church. He has been a great ambassador for the church.

“I don’t want to make a big deal that he did not go on a mission but he has touched more lives in one interview than some people do serving five missions. I’m not saying people should just go to college and not go on a mission, but Manti is one of those unique cases where it’s worked out for him. I believe — and he realizes too — that in going to Notre Dame he could serve there, not only Notre Dame but the church as well. We are all proud of that.

“It’s been great for Manti to be at the forefront. He is a very humble kid and he is always concerned about how other people feel and always tries to make sure others feel comfortable.

"The time has gone by so fast," Alema Te'o continued. "I remember traveling out to Notre Dame to see him start his first game as a freshman against the University of Washington and now he’s going to graduate in a few weeks with a bachelor’s degree.

"He’s going to get his degree on top of everything else that has happened. He’s been a great example to his brothers and sisters and a whole new generation of Te’os coming up and Polynesians in general."

Alema Te'o is a camp director for Pittsburgh Steeler and Samoan superstar Troy Polamalu, and the NFL star has invited Manti to go with him this summer to Samoa and help conduct a series of football camps during a 10-day trip.

“Hopefully, Manti can do this because it will be a big treat for him and the kids there. Manti has never been to Samoa in his life,” said Alema.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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