EAST LANSING, Mich. — How do you play with a heavy heart?
If you’re Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te’o, you play the game of your life against Michigan State.
Te’o lost his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, on Wednesday after her long battle with leukemia. Her death came less than 24 hours after his maternal grandmother passed away.
But he decided to play Saturday night to “honor” them and to be there for his teammates.
Te’o responded by leading the No. 20 Fighting Irish to a 20-3 win over the No. 10 Spartans. He finished atop the Notre Dame tackle totals with 12, shared the lead with two pass break-ups and recovered the game’s lone fumble.
“It was hard,” said Te’o, a senior from Laie, Hawaii. “I lost a woman who I truly love, but I have a family around me and my football family. At the end of the day, families are forever and I will see them again someday.”
This victory — which sets up another big game for Notre Dame, against No. 17 Michigan in South Bend next Saturday — was his way to get away from the sorrow for a few hours.
“It is a great escape,” Te’o said. “I will be honest, throughout the game, you are thinking about it. But football allows me to be in a little realm, a little world that I know. I can honor them by the way I played.
“It was for them — for my girl and grandma — and for all my loved ones who have passed on. They are all watching. It was a happy moment.”
Te’o spent much of the game in the face of Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell. Te’o’s relentless play, along with that of outside linebacker Prince Shembo, saw to it that Michigan State never penetrated his team’s red zone.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was blown away by Te’o’s performance and the resolve of both Te’o and his teammates.
“I can tell you the entire defense is his family because, during this tough time, all he wanted to do was be at practice with his teammates,” Kelly said. “So there’s a lot of merit to that statement in that all those kids in there were pulling for Manti.
“Manti raised his level, too. Given all the distractions and tragedy that he had to deal with, he went and played really good football today.
“There’s nobody (like Manti). He’s so strong for everybody that … everybody wanted to help him out. And I’ve never seen that dynamic amongst a team and a group of players. It’s a pretty close locker room.”
Irish running back Cierre Wood, who rushed for 56 yards, said it was a matter of “heart.”
“He is one of my closest friends,” Wood said. “We’ve been cool since my freshman year. We have been close. Ever since he told me and ever since we found out, I was there for him, as was our whole team. We just kept his head up and tried to keep him as positive as we could.
“When he came out, he played tremendous. I have to give a lot of credit to him for playing with a lot of heart.”
His heavy heart pumped harder with the support he received.
“My family and my girlfriend’s family has received so much love and support from the Notre Dame family,” Te’o said. “Michigan State fans showed some love.
“It goes to show that football is just a game that we play and have fun doing it.
“But at the end of the day, what matters are the people around you and family.”