Manti Te’o was walking off the practice field a couple of weeks ago when he asked his coach what time it was. And he figured out right then and there, 12:01 p.m., that his girlfriend’s casket was being closed thousands of miles away. Te’o tells his story so calmly now, and with such strength.
Last month, within a six-hour span, he found out that his grandmother had died in Hawaii and that his girlfriend had died after suffering from leukemia. That’s what is in the heart now of the player most responsible for Notre Dame’s football renaissance. His girlfriend made him promise that he would keep playing, for her.
Te’o is Notre Dame’s revival. He is the heart of it. The Fighting Irish are 5-0 after beating Miami 41-3 on Saturday at Soldier Field. With the upsets across the country, they moved up to No. 7 in Sunday’s Associated Press ranking.
And the amazing thing is how Te’o can talk about crying uncontrollably, and also can talk about staying focused and going to practice every day.
“It was probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do so far,’’ he said. “To be able to operate, to be able to try and continue with my daily routine, but knowing that I just lost two women whom I truly love.’’
Notre Dame is always looking for something special, something magical to pin its greatness and legend on, as if it comes from a mystical place. I would prefer not to trivialize Te’o that way, as if his personal trauma can fold neatly into a football story, as a way to build it up.
His personal story is his personal story. Notre Dame football is Notre Dame football. And they only intersect in that Te’o is such a big part of both stories. Football is not the higher calling here.
The funny thing is that while Te’o is exactly what Notre Dame has been seeking for years, he doesn’t fit the way Irish legend demands.
Te’o is a Mormon from Hawaii who never paid attention to Notre Dame when he was growing up and didn’t know anything about Irish tradition or legend at all. He even surprised himself by signing with Notre Dame.
Well, whatever. He is an amazing linebacker who is leading a powerful defense. And he’s doing it through the hardest of times.
He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, in some regions, this week. He is coming up now as another Notre Dame Heisman Trophy candidate (not likely for a linebacker, especially with the way West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith is playing).
Meanwhile, Te’o has gone through so much personally in the past few weeks while the Irish are moving closer to the top of college football again.
So I asked him after the game Saturday how he can deal with all of those things at the same time.
“It takes a lot of focus, and I think for me, just staying humble,’’ he said. “Understanding that with all this, just, attention, to stay humble and remember who to thank. The heavenly father. And to rely on my team.’’
Notre Dame is getting better every week. The defense hasn’t given up a touchdown in the past three games, wins over Michigan State, Michigan and Miami.
Everything is set up perfectly now. The Irish started the year under a cloud of years of disappointment. Rick Reilly wrote a powerful column for ESPN.com saying that Notre Dame “has been living a lie, as Lou Holtz likes to say. Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, nothing happened.’’
Basically, he was saying that enough is enough.
What’s going to happen now is that everything will go overboard the other way, as if Notre Dame is great again. To be honest, I’m still going to say — as I did after the Irish beat Michigan — that they are not back. There is no back, and they are starting all over, with a Mormon from Hawaii.
The team is definitely good again, with a great defense but a subpar offense. There have been changes in college football, with top teams coming now from Oregon, Kansas State, West Virginia. Notre Dame is crushing big-time programs that are not current. Michigan State is no good. Michigan is average. Miami? Let’s just say that Notre Dame beat a bunch of guys who were wearing Miami uniforms.
Miami has no defense. None. That said, for the past few years, Notre Dame had been just like those teams, living on the past.
The hard part of the schedule is coming. The Irish probably will beat Stanford on Saturday in South Bend, but that’s not a given. And they probably will lose at Oklahoma on Oct. 27 and at USC on Nov. 24.
Notre Dame hasn’t won a national championship since 1988 or a Heisman since 1987. Those streaks won’t end this year. But at least the Irish are in position to find out.
Quarterback Everett Golson offered the best hope Saturday. He had been unimpressive this season. But against Miami, maybe for the first time, he showed his ability to run. He rushed for 51 yards on six carries, and he threw for 186, completing 77.2 percent of his passes.
“I thought Everett grew up today,’’ head coach Brian Kelly said.
Again, it happened against a team without a defense. But Miami does have a good offense, and it managed just three points.
“It’s very crucial for us to just settle down,’’ Te’o said. “We’re getting a lot of praise and pats on the back. That’s nice, to get that kind of support. But we have to avoid all that kind of stuff. Know who we are.’’
There is no way to avoid it now. Not at Notre Dame, undefeated halfway through a season. But stay focused. Stay calm. Te’o may or may not be the inspiration. But he certainly is the example. He leads it all, but does it in pain.