Te'o eases grieving parents' pain

Published Oct. 25, 2012 1:00 a.m. ET

Character is revealed behind closed doors. In today’s me-first culture where sports "heroes" allow their need for the limelight to dominate and define their ethics, a story of real character and human connection isn’t easy to find.

Manti Te’o didn’t even know Bridget Smith. They were two people from two worlds: A Mormon football star at Notre Dame who is a Hawaiian of Samoan descent. A dying 12-year-old Catholic girl from suburban Detroit.

It was earlier this month, just three weeks after Te’o’s girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, had died of leukemia. His grandmother had died, too. He was trying to graduate. He was on the cover of the current Sports Illustrated. So much swirling in the mind of a college kid. How would you have handled all that at that age?

When his girlfriend died, the natural reaction for Te’o could have been, "Why her? Why me?" It would have been understandable if he had been thinking about himself at that moment.

Instead: "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Smith." Te’o wrote an emotional letter, via email. Picture a big, tough linebacker sitting at his computer, "definitely crying," as he said, over someone else’s pain, some stranger’s pain.

All he had known about Bridget, all he had been told through a mutual friend, was that Bridget's brain tumor was finally proving too powerful and that she wasn’t going to get out of the hospital again. And she loved Notre Dame football and Manti Te’o.

“Obviously, going through what I’ve gone through, with my girlfriend passing away from cancer, that whole thing hit home for me,’’ Te’o said in a private moment the other day, “My whole thing was just to reach out and let them know I’m here. I wrote her parents.


“Just letting them know that the heavenly father is always there. Although it may not seem like it right now, He’s always there to help. It was definitely hard to write.

“And I think it helped to ease my pain, too.’’

On the other end of that email were Brian and Louise Smith. Brian, a Notre Dame alum and fan, and Louise, a St. Mary’s alum. They had watched the Notre Dame-Michigan game with Bridget just a few weeks earlier in the University of Michigan Intensive Care Unit. On Friday, Oct. 5, they were planning to disconnect Bridget’s ventilator at 3 p.m.

It would be her last day.

That morning, they casually opened their email and saw one that had come from: MANTI TE’O. He would pour out his feelings about his own losses and connect with the Smiths’ world.

“We opened that letter that morning, and it was just a bright spot on the saddest day of our lives,’’ Louise Smith said. “We read it to her; we shared with her what it said. They say hearing is the last thing to go. I don’t know. I believe she internalized it.

“It’s so encouraging to have someone in that position know there’s something more important than football, more important than athletics. It was a beautiful letter, just sharing the experience with the death of his girlfriend.’’

We keep looking for the real thing, for real heroes. But we’re looking at the wrong criteria, so the results keep disappointing us. In sports, they built a statue to Joe Paterno, but later had to take it down.

Lance Armstrong was built up as the greatest human being until we found out how he bullied and cheated.

Character is revealed behind closed doors. Te’o didn’t save a life, but in his grief, he gave of himself to others.

Our whole culture now is to think of yourself. Empathy is on the decline, and that has led to this mess we’re in. In the economy, pop culture, politics, everything else. Athletes, movie stars, singers are just pursuing the next thing to bring attention, money. That’s what we idolize now. That’s what we look up to.

Anything to succeed. Cheat your way to the top. Step on others. Think of yourself.

It’s no wonder we keep being let down.

Pain can make you turn in or turn out. Te’o turned out and wasn’t doing it for any reason other than that he felt he could make some sort of difference. You probably think I’m trying to turn Te’o into a hero for his small letter and big gesture. I’m not. This kind of thing should be the norm.

It just isn’t. So it stands out.

“I’m human,’’ Te'o said. “I have my own mistakes. I have my own weaknesses. But that doesn’t exempt me from being there for somebody. I’m a knucklehead sometimes, but if I can have an impact on somebody’s life in a positive way, I’m going to do it.

“I’m always looking to serve somebody. It just goes back to what my parents taught me.’’

He turned out to be a football star anyway, getting a fully paid education, a degree from a top university and a big-dollar future.

The letter was not a PR move, by the way. It wasn’t a media relations person writing a quick note and having Te’o sign it. No one put him up to it. In fact, Notre Dame officials didn’t even know Te’o wrote it. He didn’t tell them. The letter was so personal that the Smiths decided not to make it public. I only learned about it from a friend of theirs who had read a column I’d written about how Te’o deserves the Heisman Trophy.

Louise Smith decided to read me the letter, but asked that I not quote from it and only give a general characterization. So this wasn’t set up for cameras and wasn’t even set up by coaches. It wasn’t a quick note of condolences and a signature, either. On paper, it probably would have been nearly two pages long. It was graceful and deeply personal about his girlfriend and loss and God, and relating all of that to Bridget and the Smiths.

To be honest, it was emotional just hearing a mother read a letter like that, an optimistic message about a horrifying thing. You just wanted to turn back reality somehow.

Te’o wanted to ease their pain. As he said, it eased his pain, too.

Surely, with what he’d been through, Te’o felt a little powerless. He then heard Bridget’s story, and maybe he just wanted the feeling that there was something he could do.

“My girlfriend, when she was at St. Jude’s in LA, she had a little friend,’’ Te’o said. “Her little friend passed away two weeks before my girlfriend passed away. So I’ve experienced a lot of that . . .

“It’s unfortunate that I’ve gone through it, but at the same time, it puts me in a situation where I can help people. I can serve people. I can relate to them. I see life through a whole different set of eyes.’’

Louise described Bridget and her battle. When doctors thought she had only a few months to live, she went three more years. When they said she wouldn’t swallow again, within weeks, she was having a Happy Meal.

When they said she likely wouldn’t walk again, it wasn’t long before she was running down the halls.

The middle of seven kids, Bridget loved zebras, iCarly, movies, sports. Notre Dame football. At a talent show at summer camp for kids with cancer, Louise said, Bridget had lost her hair from radiation treatments.

She had ND painted on her head and delivered a stand-up comedy routine.

“I still constantly pray for Bridget and her family,’’ Te’o said. “You know, Bridget’s in a better place now. She’s with my girlfriend. There’s no better place to be.’’

In the end, Louise and Brian said that while they wanted to keep Te’o’s letter private and personal, at least for now, they would be OK with seeing the end of that letter published.

Here it is:

“Please tell Bridget that I am her biggest fan. Thank her for me for being an inspiration for me. I wish you and your family all the best. And know that I will be praying for your family, especially Bridget. God bless you all, Manti Te’o.”