Manti Te'o could've held his own private national signing day ceremony Wednesday to announce his long-awaited college decision. Instead, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior linebacker from Punahou (Honolulu) and No. 1 defensive player (No. 2 overall) in the ESPNU 150 made his choice among nearly 50 other Hawaiian prep athletes who also were inking their letters of intent at the Blaisdell Center in Honolulu.
For Te'o, it was exactly how he wanted to cap his high school prep career and transition to the college level. Te'o signed with Notre Dame over rival USC, donning a Fighting Irish cap in front of a national television audience on ESPNU.
"I wanted everyone else to have the same kind of exposure I did," Te'o said. "I didn't want to sign by myself because I've always been an advocate of promoting my fellow Hawaiian athletes."
He also seemed relieved the process was finally over. Te'o says he got only about three hours of sleep Tuesday night because he was so excited that everything he worked for was going to be determined in the next few hours. At 5 a.m., on the ride to the Blaisdell Center with his family, he told them he was heading to Notre Dame.
"I kept saying, 'Are you sure? Are you sure?'" said his father, Brian, who is also an assistant coach at Punahou. "And he said, 'Yes, I'm sure.' The best part for me was when he put on that hat."
It's safe to say Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis and Fighting Irish fans across the country were also ecstatic when the most celebrated prep athlete in Hawaii history signed on the dotted line.
A two-time Gatorade State Player of the Year and an Under Armour and EA Sports All-American this season, Te'o was also this year's initial high school recipient of the Butkus Award as the nation's top prep linebacker.
All he did as a senior was guide Punahou to its first state football title in 118 years as a school. He tallied eight tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble in the Buffanblu's 38-7 win over Leilehua (Wahiawa, Hawaii) in the First Hawaiian Bank State Football Division I tournament championship. For the year, Te'o finished with 129 tackles, 11 sacks, three forced fumbles and three interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He also brought back a blocked punt for a score and added five touchdowns on offense.
"He's very instinctive, but he also takes the time to watch film," says Punahou coach Kale Ane, who played at Michigan State and for seven years in the NFL. "He's a student of the game as well as being a tremendous athlete. You put those attributes together and you have a special player."
Te'o also excels off the field, where he's an Eagle Scout and a participant in a number of volunteer activities, such as helping at a local preschool through Head Start. And although football is important to him, it comes second to his faith. A Mormon, Te'o is planning to take a two-year LDS mission when he turns 19 on Jan. 26, 2010, meaning he'll spend only his freshman year with the Irish before going on his mission.
He's also a good student, and when Te'o offered advice to the top recruits in the Class of 2010, it was about the classroom.
"I would just say work hard and focus on academics because without academics, you can't go anywhere," he said.
Brian Te'o says his son ultimately was swayed by Notre Dame's ability to provide him with an equal balance between academics, football and his spiritual life, though his decision was a difficult one.
Te'o's ultimate choice was revealed only to his immediate family before he put on the cap. And no, the green and gold lei he had on during the ceremony was only a coincidence. "Everything happens for a reason, I guess," said Te'o, laughing.
Now that the process is finally over, Te'o -- and his family -- can get some much-needed rest.
"I'm happy that it's done," he said. "I finally get to be a high school student."