May 30, 2012, 3:58 PM EDT
Before Aaron Lynch or Louis Nix struggled with second thoughts about the decision to spend four years in South Bend, there was another highly touted prep phenom that had great expectations heaped on his shoulders.
Manti Te’o, the lifeblood of the Irish defense, and one of the most recognized players in all of college football, almost walked away from his commitment to Notre Dame. Choosing the Irish over USC in a last-minute Signing Day change of heart that was spurred on by a belief that Notre Dame was where he could make the biggest impact both on and off the field, Te’o’s first season in South Bend was hardly as smooth as we might remember now.
Speaking at the Downtown Athletic Club of Honolulu, via his hometown Star-Advertiser, Te’o recalled those first days in South Bend, when the Irish linebacking prodigy was just another in-over-his-head freshman.
This from the Star Advertiser’s profile:
Three years ago, everything seemed fine when Brian Te’o would speak on the phone with his son, who had just left for college. “But then I got two calls. (Notre Dame quarterback) Jimmy Clausen’s dad called me and we had a long talk. Then a call from a coach, and we had a long talk.”
Manti Te’o would put on a happy voice for his dad. But things weren’t going so well for the Fighting Irish freshman linebacker. He hardly got reps. When he did, they quickly became fodder for film-room examples of how to do things incorrectly.
“After two practices I waited until everyone left the field and sat and cried on the bleachers. ‘What am I doing here? I want to go home,’ ” Te’o told the Downtown Athletic Club of Honolulu on Tuesday. “I was no longer that big fish in the small pond.”
Now he’s big enough to share his story of wanting – if ever so briefly – to give up. He knows it might inspire at least one person in despair to keep trying and fight through like he did, and that’s what it’s all about.
Te’o soon adjusted to college football and Notre Dame. If he needed reinforcement, he soon got it from Brian, who told him, “This ain’t Punahou and that ain’t the ILH, so you better get beyond that.”
Irish fans will likely feel their blood boil picturing loud-barking defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta drilling the talented freshman in meeting rooms, using negative reinforcement on a youngster who was likely the most talented player on the field for the Irish defense, even if he didn’t know ten percent of what he needed to do.
That said, it’s interesting to remember Brian Kelly‘s earliest comments on Te’o after watching his entire freshman season of tape after taking over the Irish program in December. Here’s Kelly on what he saw in Te’o, as the Irish prepared for their first spring practice under the new regime.
“He’s a college football player. He’s got that, you know, excitement, that passion,” Kelly said then. Those are the guys I want to be around. I’m passionate about what I do. I want to be around guys that love the game, love being around it. So he brings that energy on a day-to-day basis. But he’s got to get much better as a football player. He wasn’t very good. And he understands that. He’s been committed to learning. Remember, he hasn’t been here a year. He’s a freshman. So I just love the energy that he brings and the passion that he wants to be a great player.”
In the last two seasons playing under Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, we’ve seen a steady rise in the baseline level of Te’o’s play, matching the raw ability that he walked in with that made him a ready-made All-American candidate. Even while battling through an injury that robbed him of his explosiveness for much of his junior season, the consistency in his on-field play is what makes the senior linebacker such a terrific player.
Te’o’s terrific development over the last two seasons doesn’t mean things have only been smooth between Kelly and his star defender. When Kelly had some polarizing comments about the players he inherited from the previous regime, it was Te’o that bristled among the most, taking to Twitter before being among the team leaders in the locker room as the Irish ironed out their differences.
Yet Te’o’s decision to return to Notre Dame for his senior season, announcing his plans spontaneously at the Lott Impact Awards back in December without going through any NFL evaluation process or other overwrought deliberations, shows you the type of student-athlete he’s matured into.
“This was a tough decision, and I found myself praying about it often,” Te’o said back in December. “Ultimately, I really want to experience my senior year at Notre Dame. The happiest moments so far in my life have come when I am spending time with people I love. I wanted to spend another year with my teammates and the coaches on our team. I don’t think any sum of money can replace the memories I can create in my senior year.
“Graduating from Notre Dame is really important to me. Many people encouraged me to go to the NFL because I could always earn my diploma later in life. If I did that, though, I would not have the chance for the same experiences that are ahead of me in my senior year, and I would not have finished at Notre Dame with the guys I started with and care so much about. When I weighed all the factors that went into this decision, it just felt right to stay at Notre Dame.”
That’s a long way from the guy that battled his emotions and self-belief as he cried on the empty bleachers of Notre Dame Stadium.