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Te’o overcomes doubts to fulfill promise with the Irish

May 30, 2012, 3:58 PM EDT

Manti Te'o junior

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.


  1. jomilly - May 30, 2012 at 4:10 PM

    Manti = Notre Dame football. Kids watch and learn how its done the RIGHT way.

  2. 9irish - May 30, 2012 at 4:44 PM

    He’s going to have a great year. Then go to the NFL with a degree from THE University of Notre Dame. Going from Hawaii to South Bend would be a shock to the system, and traveling home is such a complicated endeavor.

    I have known several Samoans in the Marines (a relationship that dates back to WWII) and they were very tough guys, like him. He’s got the world by the tale.

    • dickasman - May 30, 2012 at 5:25 PM

      What’s he majoring in? I really wish BK would get his fat arse out of Burger King and get his @$$ over to hawaii and start recruitin some more hawaiians.

      Nine, stop w that “the” sht, unless you gonna do the “da”. Only people who says that are morons suffering from CTE besides the moronicness.

      • 9irish - May 31, 2012 at 4:09 AM

        @dick…Come on…that was a shot at OSU. Notre Dame doesn’t need “THE” like they do. Lighten up, man.

  3. jerseyshorendfan1 - May 30, 2012 at 7:30 PM

    We should all brace ourselves for the phenomenal season that Manti is about to have. I think 10-2 with a couple of hard fought defensive battles where Teo carries the D on his back. He will rank among the best at the position like Crable, Bercich, Boiman and Buoniconti.

    • bernhtp - May 30, 2012 at 9:27 PM

      I certainly hope so. He’s a great guy with great character and an important leader for the team, besides being an amazing talent and contributor. I hope Manti can start forcing the turnovers we need to be on the other side of the ledger this season.

  4. brazilianirish - May 31, 2012 at 5:34 AM

    Man of Character.

  5. audomer - May 31, 2012 at 9:32 AM

    Certainly a man I’d be happy to see marry my daughter.

    They don’t get much better than Manti!

  6. pjm79nd - May 31, 2012 at 9:51 AM

    I admire Manti very much and greatly appreciate his love for and dedication to ND. We could not ask for a finer young man and a better representative of our university.

    But he has to have a monster 2012 season to reach his potential and meet the expectations with which he was recruited.

  7. rockmcd - May 31, 2012 at 11:22 AM

    I have 2 observations on this article:
    (1) Look at new team captain Jimmy Clausen identifying a problem with a new teammate and taking the extra step to solve it. Don’t tell Todd McShay, this won’t jive with the storyline that he was a primadonna only concerned with his own draft position or only concerned with his teammates on the offensive side.

    (2) Taking the liberty of being an amateur armchair psychologist, one could see how his early struggles to adapt to college life might have played into his reluctance to dive right into the NFL at the earliest opportunity. Maybe Manti recognizes that the transition to professional life will be a challenge (as it is for all rookies) and that he’ll be better equipped for success with another full year to prepare for it.

    • 9irish - May 31, 2012 at 2:51 PM

      Fully agree with you on that. Clausen was very well under rated, and still is. He went thru some tough years at ND. I hope it works out for him in the NFL.

  8. fnc111 - May 31, 2012 at 8:55 PM

    I love Te’o but people saying 10-2 are nuts. 6-6 period but Manti will make us proud.

  9. jonathanfesler - Jul 20, 2012 at 11:29 PM

    If the ND defense is going to be successful this year this guy needs to dominate and take over at crunch time, which we haven’t seen from him so far I’m expecting a big year from him where he lives up to all the expections when he first came, and hopefully my Green Bay Packers end up with him somehow!!!

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