Welcome to the Club

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o returned for his senior season to lead his teammates to a national championship, and at 10-0, his Irish are on the cusp of that fulfilling that dream. Along the way, Te'o cemented his spot in Irish lore -- on and off the field.

"I know how it feels to sit in mid-January and watch a national championship. I want to play in a BCS bowl. I want to play for the BCS title..." -- Manti Te'o, August 2012

Two nights last December -- along with 22 years of personal development -- have made Te'o's senior goal possible. A national title, the first in 24 football seasons, is within Notre Dame's grasp. Nearly two decades of intermittent success bound by mediocrity can be wiped clean, and Irish fans old and new largely have one supreme student-athlete to thank for it.

"I think to say it was one guy that is responsible for everything, that's far from the truth," said Te'o of the program's resurgence during his four seasons in South Bend. "The guys that are going to run out with me for the last time and the guys that are going to run out for the last season game here at Notre Dame, and hopefully more to come, that's who has changed this program. It's not just me."

It never can be one man in this sport, but it was his leadership, indomitable will, desire to improve, and of course, his unique talents that made this recovery from on field irrelevance possible.

And a little help from a well-edited, heart-felt video feature didn't hurt, either.

"I think that was the tipping point for me on whether or not I was going to enter into the draft or not," said Te'o of the oft-referenced senior video shown at the team's awards banquet last December. "To see that, that was that moment where I said, 'Yeah, I know what I'm going to do.' To see that video and see just the joy in their parents' eyes and see the joy in my teammates eyes."

Te'o announced his return in the days that followed. Notre Dame later returned to its rightful place in college football as a result.

Crystal Clear

Golden Tate finished tenth; Brady Quinn finished fourth, then third; Reggie Brooks finished fifth, Rocket Ismail second, and Tony Rice fourth.

Those are Notre Dame's contenders since Tim Brown took home the school's seventh and most recent Heisman trophy in 1987. Barring a ridiculous final two games from Te' o coupled with an utter implosion from Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, Te'o will finish somewhere between second and fifth this fall.

No matter, Te'o's ultimate goal is to finish higher than second place at the conclusion of a different type of final vote.

"You ask any Heisman winner that wasn't a national champion what they would rather be, and I think they would rather be the latter: a national champion.

"I'd rather be holding a crystal ball than a bronze statue. That's just me."

Modern players break records. They play more games in the regular season, they have the benefit of bowl game statistics added to their totals. And the game has changed to offer more snaps, yards, touchdowns, and opportunity. Thus, those who've toiled most recently populate the majority of Notre Dame's record book and of universities nationwide.

After four seasons as a starter, Te'o's name will rank third in total tackles, first in interceptions in a single-season for a linebacker, and among the top 10 in terms of tackles-for-loss in program annals. He'll be one of three players to record 100-plus tackles in three straight seasons.

He's beloved by his fellow students and a city full of Irish fans jaded after two decades without prosperity. He's a finalist for scholastic, athletic, and citizenry awards alike, and unlike most athletes of his status in the internet age, not reviled by opposing fans for his newfound fame.

At the conclusion of his college career, an undefeated finish and the BCS Title game's crystal trophy is within Notre Dame's grasp. Whether they finish undefeated or merely notably good at season's end, Te'o will be the MVP of an Irish team that fans remember for decades.

But the senior knows well only one final mark can cement the team as a whole among the program's finest.

"When you're a champion at another school you're a champion. When you're a champion at Notre Dame, you become a legend,'" said Te'o.

On and off the field, Te'o is already both.

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