Manti Te'o: Mission Bound On/Off the Field

Manti Te'o has been getting attention and offers from a lot of different programs, including some very prominent ones. However, if those programs want Te'o's services as a linebacker, they have to agree to an important demand.

A smiling Bronco Mendenhall looked around the sparsely filled BYU football team meeting room last Saturday night and greeted close to 15 athletes and their families – LDS and non-LDS mainly from Hawaii – and picked up a church magazine to read a few passages by LDS Church prophet Gordon B. Hinckley regarding the mission and values of Brigham Young University, the worldwide Church's flagship university.

Then he read a passage from the Book of Mormon to emphasize that his primary mission as head coach at BYU was to develop and prepare "these fine young men" become "stripling warriors" both on and off the field.

Listening attentively from the fourth row were father and son Brian and Manti Te'o, the latter a linebacker who is currently one the most highly recruited sophomores in the country, with written or verbal offers already from BYU, USC, UCLA, California, Boise State, Texas A&M, UNLV, Colorado and Utah. Notre Dame and Tennessee coaches visited Manti's school in Hawaii specifically to check him out and told his coaches they would contact them soon.

"The one thing I've made very clear to all coaches recruiting Manti is that he is definitely going on [an LDS] mission when he's 19 and they have to agree, or we're not interested," said Brian. "They have all said they would support Manti when he goes on his mission. We're pretty excited about that."

In an interesting about-face, USC head coach Pete Carroll – who had reportedly told all previous LDS signees at USC that he would not hold scholarships for them if they chose to serve LDS missions – personally called Brian and told him he would definitely support Manti's firm church mission plans and hold a scholarship until he returned.

The Saturday informal gathering was a hastily scheduled special BYU Junior Day activity for Hawaii athletes and families who could not make the previous one. It was scheduled following the conclusion of the three-day All-Poly Sports Camp held annually at Bountiful High School, which drew more than 300 excellent athletes from throughout the country. The special Junior Day right after the All-Poly Sport Camp was intended to accommodate the Hawaii contingent because of the distance and expense involved in coming to BYU.

Coach Mendenhall left quite an impression on the Te'o's.

"I was thoroughly and totally impressed with Bronco," Brian said. "I was really impressed with his honesty and integrity…I was just impressed with the organization of the entire program and its mission and values."

Asked what his son's response was, Brian said Manti was speechless.

"[Manti] and I were impressed," said Brian. "It's his first time looking inside a Division-I program. His school [elite private school Punahou] in Hawaii is pretty high-tech, but it was nothing even close to what BYU has.

"[Manti] told me he really liked Bronco. What I felt about his sincerity and honesty, [Manti] felt it as well. Even before we walked into the [BYU football complex], I felt very comfortable, just like a home away from home. We've been to USC [summer camps] the last two years and it's a totally different environment. It's not really nice outside the campus."

"I thought it was great," said Manti. "It was my first real inside visit to a college. I've walked around [University of Hawaii] and BYU is way better. The facilities were a real eye-opener for me. I really liked the organization, tradition and the legacy of the program. I was really impressed with the Indoor Practice Facility. I've never seen anything like it before. My uncle Mark [Atuaia] told me it's the largest one in the country."

Apparently, Manti was not as speechless as his father claimed.

"I asked Coach Mendenhall if I get injured in high school would my scholarship offer still stand," said Manti. "He said, ‘Yes.' He said the only thing that would take it away would be if I got in trouble with the police or the school.

"Coach Mendenhall is very straight and upfront with you. He told us that BYU offers four main things for football players not found as a powerful combination at any other university."

Those four things are:

a) A place of great faith, regardless of religious denomination, where athletes are expected to live their religious beliefs, become standard bearers for the school's principles and value and also adhere to the school's unique code of conduct.
b) Academic excellence. The latest NCAA academic rankings reportedly just came out and BYU is now ranked No. 1 with a collective team GPA of 2.98. Apparently, the program's goal is a 3.0 team GPA.
c) Community service. All Cougar players are expected to perform more hours of community service at home and before away games, in a volunteer program coordinated completely by the player leaders, than most other colleges.
d) BYU's football tradition. The rallying cry for the program this season is to "Raise the Bar" over last year, when BYU won the MWC Conference title outright and had an 11-2 record, crushed Pac-10 foe Oregon 38-8 in the Las Vegas Bowl, was ranked 5th nationally in offense and 10th nationally in defense, and will graduate 20 of 22 departing 2006 seniors by August this year and all 22 seniors by next January.

According to the Te'o's, Mendenhall told his enthralled audience that no other university in the world can offer all these diverse elements, and added in a somber tone that if that's not what athletes want, then BYU may not be the place for them.

Responding to Mendenhall's take-away challenge, Manti said: "I would like to be in a place where my faith is placed first. After listening to Coach Mendenhall, I really respected him. He's a man with a lot of integrity, a lot of love for our prophet, [and] our Heavenly Father, and he said his love for the Lord Jesus Christ is the most important thing to him and that's the same with me.

"[Coach Mendenhall] doesn't care what others say. He wants fine young men that believe in the same things and it doesn't matter what religions they belong to. BYU is definitely a school I could see myself at.

"The other main factor in selecting a college is being able to serve my mission without any obstacles. I want to know for a fact that colleges will let me accomplish my spiritual goal. I want to help my school also achieve our football team goals. I'm definitely also looking for a college that will help me get drafted early.

"I'm so thankful for my parents [Brian and Ottilia] for supporting me. I'm also thankful to the Lord Jesus Christ for the talents and blessings I have."

Both father and son said there are no plans to make an early commitment to any college. No time frame has been settled on. Meanwhile, more pressing priorities lie ahead for young Manti.

"Manti's got a lot more to offer his [high school] coaches than he's already shown," said Brian. "As a coach and father, our goal is to keep improving his skills."

Asked to rate a current top-five list of schools he is interested in, Manti said it's too early to narrow down his list.

"I don't know," said Manti. "When the time comes, I'll make the best decision for me and my family."

Statistically, Manti's fastest 40 time is 4.7. He has a vertical jump of 33-and-a-half inches, and 20 bench presses at 185 pounds.

Though he insists it's not a prediction for the future, Brian half-joked that "it would be neat to see three cousins play in [BYU] blue and white."

Those three cousins would be Manti, Shiloah Te'o (Brian's brother David's son, currently being recruited by BYU), and Levi Te'o (Brian's brother Ephraim's son, a junior prospect currently starting at Timpview High School).

Hmmmmm…


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