Commentary

Hawaiian star makes big impression at Under Armour Game practices

Updated: January 2, 2009, 1:26 PM ET
By Jon Mahoney | ESPNRISE.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- QB Matt Barkley grew up playing football in the pigskin hotbed of Orange County, Calif., an area annually teeming with Division I recruits. With the amount of talent the USC-bound quarterback has seen over the years, it understandably takes a lot to wow him.

But after just two practices for Sunday's Under Armour All-America Game (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), Barkley couldn't believe what he'd just seen -- a 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker with such a freakish combo of size, speed and power you'd swear he was created by the mind of "300" writer Frank Miller.

Matt Barkley, this … is … Manti Te'o.

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Gary Bogdon for ESPN.comEveryone wants LB Manti Te'o, but he's deciding between USC, UCLA, Notre Dame, BYU and Stanford.
"He's a beast," says Barkley, who is rated the nation's No. 10 overall recruit in the ESPNU 150. "When I first met him, he was a lot bigger than I thought he was going to be. He's impressed me. He's one of the best defensive players I've ever played with."

Thankfully for Barkley, he'll be on the same sideline with Te'o come Sunday evening. And he isn't alone in his effusive praise of the senior from Punahou (Honolulu, Hawaii) who is rated the nation's No. 1 outside linebacker in the ESPNU 150 and plans to decide between USC, UCLA, BYU, Notre Dame and Stanford on national signing day (Feb. 4).

Anyone who has watched Te'o in person or on film can't miss the way he closes on ball carriers like he was being propelled by the turbo button on Xbox 360, or the hits he delivers with the force of a T.I. beat. If it seems like Te'o is always around the ball, it's because he is.

This year, he garnered Gatorade State Player of the Year honors for the second straight season after tallying 129 tackles, 11 sacks, three forced fumbles and three interceptions. He added scores on an interception return and a blocked punt and had five total touchdowns on offense.

Te'o's sparkling senior season at Punahou culminated in a 38-7 win over Leilehua (Wahiawa, Hawaii) in the First Hawaiian Bank State Football Division I tournament championship. Te'o had eight tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble in the game to help propel the Buffanblu to their only state football crown in 118 years.

"It's one thing to win a state championship, but it's another to set your mark in history for a school, especially a prestigious one like Punahou," says Te'o. "[President-elect] Barack Obama went to Punahou, and to be known as part of the first team to win a state championship in football for Barack Obama's school, to me that's a big thing."

OK, so Te'o isn't the most famous person to come out of Punahou when you're putting him up against the president-elect, but among the nation's top college football coaches, he's been their top candidate to head their 2009 recruiting classes. Why else would USC's Pete Carroll and Notre Dame's Charlie Weis make the long trek just to see him play?

Te'o credits his father and Punahou coach Kale Ane, both of whom will also help coach him in the Under Armour Game, for turning him into the player he is today.

He also says his exposure in recruiting circles wouldn't have been possible without his parents sending him to recruiting camps when he was younger. Te'o also realizes how fortunate he was to have an opportunity that a number of other young athletes from Hawaii couldn't afford, so he's taken it upon himself to use the megawatt spotlight shining down on him to promote some of the top recruits from his state.

"It is very humbling to have college coaches on your sideline, to know they're there to see you play, to watch you play," says Te'o. "I always took it that the greatest thing about them coming is that they get to see other athletes. My biggest thing with recruiting is that I took this opportunity to showcase not only how I played but how Hawaii plays as a whole. I think we've come very far in football."

His father, Brian, an assistant coach at Punahou, adds: "We wanted to use his recruiting as that tool to tell them, 'Hey, hang in there. What if we can get you an opportunity to get an education without taking money out of mom and dad's pocket?' And so I really appreciate him for accepting that challenge."

Te'o's selflessness during his recruiting process typifies the character of a young man whose life is a lot more than just giving nightmares to opposing ball carriers once a week. A solid student and an Eagle Scout, Te'o has participated in a number of volunteer activities, including helping out at the Special Olympics and at a local preschool through Head Start.

"We do it to stay grounded, we do it to remember where we're from," says Brian Te'o. "And we remember that life is meant to serve, bottom line."

Such a giving philosophy espoused by the Te'o family is derived from their faith. A devout Mormon, Te'o plans to take a two-year LDS mission when he turns 19, and he says his final five schools were cool with the decision.

Right now, though, his focus is on Sunday night. Te'o says it took him roughly 10 hours to make the trip from back home to Florida and wants to make sure he leaves satisfied with his performance.

"Everybody in Hawaii is watching and hopefully I'll make them proud, and hopefully I'll show America what Hawaii football is all about," says Te'o.

Matt Barkley quickly found out what Manti Te'o is all about -- and so too will a national TV audience on Sunday night.

Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com.

Jon Mahoney is a football and baseball editor for ESPNHS. Email him at jon.mahoney@espn.com.