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.
“People have always respected his game, but he particularly endeared himself to the school and the community when he decided to return for his senior year,” Lewis wrote in an email. “Leading one of the best defenses Notre Dame has seen in years, despite the tragic loss of his grandmother and girlfriend, has really won over the hearts of students and fans.”
Academically, Te’o carries a cumulative GPA of 3.2 and is enrolled in the College of Arts and Letters as a design major.
Spiritually, Te’o is active in his local LDS ward and occasionally invites nonmember teammates to worship services.
“Our team is very faith-based. We understand who our Heavenly Father is and who the Lord is,” Te’o said. “Guys have come to church with me and experienced Sunday (meetings). It’s been a great experience.”
Badger, a 6-foot, 193-pound freshman safety, has yet to play a down for the Irish.
Coming off his LDS mission to Guayaquil, Ecuador, the Provo native is redshirting this season with the promise of four years of eligibility. For now, he attends classes, plays with the scout defense in practice and wears a uniform at home games. He looks forward to seeing several former Timpview High teammates on the BYU sideline at Saturday’s game.
Badger’s first scholarship offer came from BYU the summer before his junior year of high school. A week later, the University of Utah offered. After his junior year, he had offers from Florida State University, University of Oregon, Louisiana State University, Stanford University, University of California and others.
“I was excited to get offered by BYU, but I wanted to keep my options open. I didn’t want to rush things,” Badger said.
He took official visits to LSU, Oregon, UCLA and Stanford before committing to the Cardinal. Then he got a call from Notre Dame and couldn’t resist one more visit. He eventually signed with the Irish.
“I had always been a fan of Notre Dame and watched them on TV. I admired safety Tom Zbikowski,” said Badger, who has always tried to set his goals high. “I really loved being on campus with my dad and brother. There was something special about it, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
Badger estimates he and his teammates are three of at least five Latter-day Saints among approximately 8,500 undergraduate students at Notre Dame.
Badger and Te’o are home-teaching companions for one undergraduate sister and two local families. Badger teaches a class of five young men in the priests quorum of his ward each Sunday. He says church members really take care of the LDS students and often have them over for Sunday dinner.
Badger has continued to be a missionary. He recently introduced a friend to the full-time missionaries and she was later baptized. He has also created a profile on Mormon.org.
“It always comes up that I’m a Mormon, and I’m asked about my beliefs on a daily basis. People are interested and want to know what it’s all about, the history and the doctrine,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for me. I’ve answered questions from teammates, coaches, friends, teachers and others.”
Badger's mission experiences have not only helped him in sharing the gospel, but he also draws strength from them when training for the gridiron.
“My mission has helped me put a better perspective on things. It helps me realize how hard I need to work,” he said. “If I can work as hard now as I did on my mission and trust in God, I know I will be successful.”
Schwenke, a 6-foot-4, 290-pound junior nose guard, came to Notre Dame from Hauula, Hawaii.
In five games as a freshman in 2010, he recorded two tackles and recovered one fumble. As a sophomore, he played in three games.
This season, Schwenke has played in all six games, including a start against Michigan State University, and posted three tackles.
Schwenke said his decision to play for the Irish was last-minute. As with Badger, a visit to campus won him over.
He was considered undersize when he showed up on campus, and building body mass and muscle has been a massive challenge.
“I had to gain weight, and I gained it too quickly. It took me a year to get used to my weight,” he said. “I knew coming here wasn’t going to be easy. The hardest part was the transition from high school to college academically.”
The nose guard appreciated one particular day in his sociology of religion class when the teacher gave a fair lecture on the LDS faith.
“When I took the class, I assumed we would just learn about Catholicism, but he didn’t just focus on the Catholic religion,” Schwenke said. “It felt good to talk about Mormonism.”
The highlight for Schwenke this season has been the camaraderie and brotherhood felt among his teammates and coaches, regardless of religious differences.
“We don’t feel different; we are all brothers on the team. We feel like we’re at home,” Schwenke said. “My whole time here has been a highlight of my life. Everyone is so close. It’s comforting for me to know I have another family outside of Hawaii, and I think everyone feels like that on the team. We share a tight bond.”
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