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.
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 [email protected].