Te’o earns his way onto the cover of Sports Illustrated

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The issue should have arrived in mailboxes around the country yesterday, with Sports Illustrated featuring Manti Te’o on the cover of thousands of magazines. It’s the first time Notre Dame has been featured on the front since 2006, when Brady Quinn, Tommy Zbikowski, and Travis Thomas were on the cover of the college football preview issue.

Teo’s regional cover was sent to the majority of the Midwest, hitting all of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, eastern Missouri, Ohio and parts of Canada. (The rest of the country got the Baltimore Orioles, and an issue featuring sports in the Nation’s capital.)

The profile on Te’o, written by former New York Times writer Pete Thamel is a wonderful read, and while it doesn’t uncover anything particularly new on Te’o or his journey to South Bend, it’s a terrific reminder that Notre Dame landed a transcendent defensive player that has perfectly bridged the gap between the past and the present.

Te’o has more than done his part in the locker room, embodying the Hawaiian traits of humility and family. He is delighted that his teammates now refer to each other as uce—Samoan slang for bro—and relish the meaning of the word. Te’o and Toma, his roommate and fellow Punahou alum, invite teammates over for dinners of Spam and eggs— “that is my weakness, Spam and Pam,” Te’o says with a laugh— and host games of spades nearly every night. “There’s just more of a closeness with this team,” says Toma, one of the Irish’s most reliable wide receivers. “We’re actually having fun again.”

Te’o’s leadership by example reached a high point when he decided to forgo first-round NFL money and return to South Bend for his senior year. One presentation he sat through with his parents, Brian and Ottilia, showed that staying in school could cost Manti $4 million. Brian and Ottilia are both in education, and Manti is the oldest of their seven children. (One brother, Brian Jr., passed away at three months old.) “We had never seen that many commas before,” Brian says.

Manti’s reasons for returning will inevitably be used as an Irish recruiting pitch for years to come. He told students at a pep rally at Dillon Hall, “You’re the reason I’m coming back.” Te’o also wanted something else: to experience Senior Day with his parents. At the end of his junior season, he watched as Steve Filer, a five-star linebacker who never panned out and tore his ACL as a senior, took the field for the last time. “I saw Steve crutch out there and the joy that his parents had in their eyes,” he says. “That’s when I realized, ‘Mom and Dad, it doesn’t matter. I want to share that with you.’”

While rumblings of a Heisman Trophy campaign have started on the internet, there’s no current plan for Notre Dame to start one. (Of course, Te’o’s play on the field might do the sports information department’s job for them.) Still, if there’s any question how good of a football player Te’o has become this season, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco let his opinion be known yesterday.

“Manti’s the finest football player in America, all positions, all teams in college,” Diaco said. “And he’s the best football player that I’ve personally coached.”