Sunday, September 16, 2012
Te'o leads Irish after tragic week
By Matt Fortuna
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- So this was how Manti Te'o would respond to a week out of left field, tragedy striking him not once but twice, two of the most important women in his life gone in a matter of hours.
The postgame television interview was done and here he came, the linebacker the last one to meet his fellow students in the northeast corner of Spartan Stadium, their adoration slowly carrying him through the final words of the Notre Dame alma mater after a 20-3 victory over Michigan State.
"We love you Manti!" the gathering repeatedly shouted, with Te'o responding by blowing them kisses.
He had fought his way to a game-high 12 tackles, five of them on Le'Veon Bell, the Heisman candidate he helped limit to 77 yards on a night the Spartans struggled to move the ball against the Irish's defense.
And still, here he was, extending his hand toward the crowd, leaping and greeting Irish basketball players Eric Atkins and Joey Brooks, two of the hundreds who made the 150-mile trip to watch Notre Dame go 3-0.
This was validation of Te'o's return for his senior year, his decision to pass up millions repaying him now, letters and support coming from all over after he said goodbye to his grandmother and his girlfriend earlier in the week.
"My family and my girlfriend's family have received so much love and support from the Notre Dame family," Te'osaid. "Michigan State fans showed some love. And it goes to show that people understand that football is just a game, and it's a game that we play, and we have fun doing it.
Manti Te'o, playing days after the deaths of his grandmother and his girlfriend, had 12 tackles and a fumble recovery against Michigan State.
"But at the end of the day what matters is the people who are around you, and family. I appreciate all the love and support that everybody's given my family and my girlfriend's family."
He had made it to practice every day last week, stopping right before one to remind his teammates that he loved them, that he wasn't going anywhere, that he'd be playing for them and for his family.
"He's just one of our great leaders and one of our best all-time players," receiver John Goodman said, "and if you don't rally around a player like that, the camaraderie isn't right, and I think the camaraderie is right on our team."
He had gotten a big lift, too, from the little man who always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Five-foot-nine Robby Toma led Notre Dame with five catches covering 58 yards, but his biggest impact came earlier in the week.
So close with Te'o back in Hawaii that he calls Teo's father "Uncle Brian," Toma has been there for Te'o throughout their college careers -- from the earlier deaths of Te'o's grandfather and two of their good friends from home, to the past week, when they chatted in their apartment together and in the hotel room before Saturday night's game.
"Earlier in the week he told me he needed me," Toma said. "I've known him since we were 5 years old. And I was just there for him when he needed to talk or whatnot.
"He's a real strong guy -- spiritually, mentally, physically -- and I was just there to be his backbone."
When Te'o stopped Bell a yard behind the line of scrimmage early in the third quarter, he got up, kissed his fingers and gently pointed to the sky, a thank-you to the grandmother and the girlfriend who helped bring him to the brink of stardom.
"There's nobody," Brian Kelly said when asked if he'd ever had someone like Te'o over his 22 years of coaching. "He's so strong for everybody that when he was at a time, everybody wanted to help him out, and I've never seen that dynamic amongst a team and a group of players. It's a pretty close locker room."
With Notre Dame up by 14 late, Bell was shoved out of bounds on his 19th and final carry of the game, the ball popping loose and landing in Te'o's arms for his second career fumble recovery.
The remaining fans let out their biggest roar of the night, and the worst week of Manti Te'o's life was on its way to a good ending, though the pain was still alive.
"Yeah," he said when asked if Saturday could have ended any better. "I could call my girlfriend right now and talk about the game.
"But I've just got to get on my knees, say a prayer and I can talk to her that way."