Manti Te'o's Irish farewell

Updated: November 13, 2012, 4:42 PM ET
By Matt Fortuna | ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Manti Te'o was there for his sisters through his voice.

His father, Brian, could hear it bleeding through the doors of the Hawaii Baptist Academy gymnasium while chatting outside with a school administrator two years ago. Te'o was home for Christmas break and had pleaded with his old man to make the hour-plus drive to Honolulu to watch two of his four sisters play for Punahou's basketball team.

By game's end, Te'o's presence had been more than felt.

His second-oldest sister, Tiare, greeted their father with a smile, saying she knew big brother was in attendance because of the incessant pleading with the officials from the stands.

"When Manti comes home, that's what he spends his entire Christmas break doing: He goes to his sisters' basketball games," Te'o's mother, Ottilia, said. "Every single game they have, he's there. And he's their biggest cheerleader. He's yelling in the crowd. I think he's one of the worst fans there, because he's yelling, 'Bad call, ref!'"

Added Brian: "He supports them the same way we support him. That's our expectation of all of them: to pitch in when you can, because it will come around eventually."

This is part of the give-and-take with Te'o, Notre Dame's Heisman contender of a linebacker whose 417 career tackles resonate only as big as his impact off the gridiron. He has inspired fans young and old, stared a double serving of tragedy right in the eye and lifted the No. 3 Irish into the national title picture way ahead of schedule.

Te'o spurned NFL millions to return to Notre Dame for his final season, with BCS goals merely supplementing his bigger dream of impacting others. Both to-do items have been checked already, before the captain takes the Notre Dame Stadium field for the final time this Saturday against Wake Forest, when the emotions will be as charged as ever.

"Before I've always wondered, 'What would life be like if I went to USC? What would life be like if I went here or here?'" Te'o said. "I've always wondered that. But I think after this season, I don't have that anymore. This is where I was meant to be."


Manti Te'o was there for fans like Micaela Kauhane through his generosity.

A crowd of more than 25,000, the Hawaii governor among them, bore witness as Te'o helped set up his coach for a Gatorade shower on the Aloha Stadium field. The first state title in the 167-year existence of Punahou -- alma mater of the free world's leader -- had been all wrapped up, and yet the linebacker's sense of purpose had never seemed so palpable.

Emerging from the pack of reporters and well-wishers, he looked up into the sea of revelers for the last time as an adolescent, his eyes darting back and forth before fixating on the white sign carrying his name and a No. 5, with an arrow directing him toward the area above the 10-yard line.

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Courtesy of Caroline KauhaneTe'o with Micaela Kauhane at his high school graduation luau.

There, a 9-year-old Micaela quietly stood still as the first-ever prep winner of the Butkus Award slipped off his right glove and handed it to her, fulfilling a promise made some seven weeks earlier.

The fourth-grade mentee Te'o had been assigned to earlier in his senior year of high school, Micaela had stormed the field with the rest of her classmates during Punahou's October homecoming win over Iolani, getting Te'o's signature on her jersey and asking for a glove from the last game he would play.

An email dialogue gave way to the postgame scene, setting off tears from Micaela's mother, Caroline. Micaela had been looking more forward to this game than she was for Christmas, which was 20 days away, and here was her real-life hero seeking her out during what was then the biggest moment of his football life. As Te'o was honored by the Honolulu Quarterback Club later in the year at a Chinese restaurant, Te'o invited Micaela and a friend up with him to accept his male prep athlete of the year trophy, introducing the crowd to his little friends in the process.

"Whenever you see the joy in somebody else's eyes because of you, you get better from it," said Te'o, who regularly takes Micaela on McDonald's trips when he's home. "I think whenever you serve somebody, you get more from it than the person you're serving.

"It's not like I'm serving Micaela, it's just when I see her smile, when I see her happy knowing that I'm able to do that, it makes me feel good. It makes me feel good about myself, that I'm having an impact on somebody. And if I can have an impact in a positive way on somebody, I'm going do it."

Te'o's father traces his oldest child's willingness to help others back to a fear of being left out, citing the 2000 Pro Bowl as an example.

That year's Pro Football Hall of Fame class featured names such as Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana and Dave Wilcox -- three of Te'o's beloved 49ers. As a standout Pop Warner player, the 9-year-old Te'o was invited to escort the legends inside Aloha Stadium. Knowing that his son would be sharing a locker room with his idols, Brian gave Manti a football to get signed.

Manti turtled up.

"He didn't know what to say," Brian recalled, bursting. "He didn't know what to do. He just stood there holding his football, and he never got any of their signatures. They would have been more than happy to do it, but he just never asked, frozen in awe."

So yes, there was a time when Te'o was on the other end of the spectrum, though few would ever know it based on how he has handled the circus surrounding him and the Irish this season, particularly in light of a pair of devastating Sept. 12 phone calls.


Manti Te'o was there for Notre Dame through his leap of faith.

He has built up more than his share of goodwill since cracking the national radar as a high school standout, when prayer led the Mormon to spurn USC at the 11th hour for the chance to carve his own legacy at a prominent Catholic school in Indiana.

"Anybody logically who was looking at it from the beginning would have said there's no way on earth this kid's going there," said Texas A&M assistant Brian Polian, who made roughly a dozen trips to Hawaii as an Irish assistant to help deliver Te'o to Notre Dame. "I think me being 33 at the time, I was just young enough to not realize how stacked the deck was against us. I was like a dumb golden retriever. 'Go sic 'em!' OK. What the hell do I know?"

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Matt Cashore/US PresswireOn the night of his late girlfriend's funeral, Te'o helped the Irish beat Michigan.

Two months ago, Teo's 72-year-old grandmother, Annette Santiago, died of natural causes. His 22-year-old girlfriend, Stanford student Lennay Kekua, died of leukemia just eight months after surviving a life-threatening car accident.

Te'o's family was originally set to meet Kekua for the first time this Saturday, and the emptiness probably will be felt in the same way it has been every day since her passing, when the couple's ritual of falling asleep on the phone together came to a tragic end.

Kekua made Te'o promise he would not leave Notre Dame should anything happen to her, requesting only a few white roses. So he responded three days after her death by recording 12 tackles in a prime-time win at then-No. 10 Michigan State. And a week later, on the night of her funeral, he notched two interceptions and forced two more in a win over Michigan, later saying that he sent the pair of picks to her along with the roses.

The entire stadium had been decked out in leis to celebrate Te'o's Hawaiian heritage, and the image of him jumping into multicolored stands following a close win over a bitter rival has served as one of the most indelible moments of the college football season.

"This year has been bittersweet, you know?" Te'o said. "From a football point of view, it's been everything I could ever imagine, just to be [undefeated], just that camaraderie around our team, it couldn't get any better. From the off-the-field standpoint, it's been hard. It's been really hard to deal with not only school but my personal life. There's nothing I could say to explain it unless somebody's been there before, they've experienced loss, especially a loss of someone who's always there, someone you communicated with every day. It's just hard.

"Somebody told me one time the hardest thing about goodbyes is that when you wake up in the morning you have to say it again, when you realize that they're not there. So every morning when I wake up and my girlfriend's not on the phone, it reminds me that she's gone, and that's the hardest part for me. I go through it every day."


Manti Te'o will be there Saturday through tragedy and triumph, through lives changed and plays made.

Roughly 40 friends and family members will be making the trip from Hawaii for Te'o's final walk through the tunnel, including his four sisters, whose only other trip was for a 2010 win over Utah.

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Courtesy of Te'o FamilyTe'o, second from left, with his family at his grandmother's funeral in September.

"Seriously," Te'o began, shaking his head, "everybody says it, but they don't have sisters like mine. They don't have a family like mine."

It's one more chance for the family, which includes one little brother, to come to South Bend and see why they sent Manti here, to see why they would cut, cook, wrap and deliver lau laus -- a favorite Hawaiian-based pork dish -- every summer to raise money for his football camp trips to BYU and USC, so Manti would have a chance to become the kind of football player he has at Notre Dame. It's one more chance for the family to cheer him on the way he so often does for them.

"Oh my gosh," Brian Te'o laughed when asked about the siblings' support. "At least at their games there's only one vocal one, and that's Manti. Manti's games, he's got five of them all yelling at the top of their lungs. My wife and I don't need to yell as much because our daughters kind of just steal our thunder."

As Te'o slaps the "Play Like A Champion Today" sign and takes the Notre Dame Stadium field, it will no doubt be night and day compared to the first time he stepped foot on the home grass, when the Irish were pelted with snowballs following a loss to Syracuse four years ago. The emotion for his family will be nearly overwhelming.

"I'm not prepared for that," Ottilia Te'o said of her son's last home game. "I don't think we'll be ready for that. Just to see Manti come out of the tunnel for the last time, it will definitely be an emotional day for us."

The emotion probably will extend throughout the stadium. Te'o has had that sort of impact -- helping to revive the Irish, of course, but also helping to restore people's hope. His good deeds and strength in the midst of such sadness have served as inspiration.

What many are just learning is what some have known for years: This is Te'o in full, his compassion for others as big a part of him as his football gifts.

In two weeks, a familiar face will be in the stands when Notre Dame plays USC in its final regular-season game, with a potential BCS title game berth on the line.

Caroline Kauhane and her husband will be surprising Micaela, now 13, and her three siblings with a Thanksgiving week trip to Los Angeles capped by seeing Te'o and their first Notre Dame game.

They will once again be getting an in-person look at what they had seen start to unfold up-close a few years earlier, before Punahou's most recent favorite son took his acts to a larger stage and impacted a wider audience.

"To see what he's made of, so many people must be Notre Dame fans just because of it, which is great for kids to look up to," Kauhane said. "It's within football, but what he's doing is outside it. It's the off-the-field stuff.

"Any parent would want to highlight it for their children and say, 'Look at that.'"

Yes, Manti Te'o has been there for Notre Dame and the Irish faithful for four years, and for his family and Micaela longer than that. He is pressing on through these final weeks, through what has been his most difficult personal year.

And, as his father might say, it is coming around.

Matt Fortuna | email

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