Manti Te’o leans back against the west brick wall of Notre Dame Stadium relaxed and content, at peace with himself and the world around him.
He is back to the place where his problems dissipate and he feels the insulation and protection of the haven that is the University of Notre Dame.
“This is home for me,” says Te’o with that wistful look on his face that was so prevalent during his magical senior season at Notre Dame. “This is where I feel most comfortable and I can be me.”
Manti being Manti in the fall of 2012 was Te’o dominating college football from his inside linebacker position, leading Notre Dame to its first national championship tilt in 24 years, and captivating the country with his selfless attitude and appreciation for life’s blessings.
Although he finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting to Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, he scooped up virtually every other piece of hardware for which he was eligible, including the Lombardi Award, the Outland Trophy, the Maxwell Award, and the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award.
And while glory turned to adversity very quickly thereafter, first in the four-touchdown loss in the national championship game against Alabama, and then in the bizarre Ronaiah Tuiasosopo/Lennay Kekua hoax, Te’o can now look back on all of it – the good times and the bad – and process all of it into more blessings for him and the Te’o family.
“So many memories…even though they put turf down,” said Te’o, waving a hand at the nearly one year old Field Turf in Notre Dame Stadium. “I miss the people, the school in general. It’s home.”
Earlier in the day, Te’o joined former Irish greats Tim Brown, Marc Edwards, Steve Beuerlein and John Carlson in an open discussion with the current Notre Dame players at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. Te’o was eager to share his perspective with the players sitting in the chairs he once occupied.
“Any time I can give back, especially to a school that has given me so much, it’s the least I can do,” Te’o said. “What I told the guys was enjoy every moment because when they leave, they’ll understand why all of us come back. They’re going to understand how special it is.
“Unfortunately for all these guys, they won’t fully understand it until they leave. There’s nothing that I can tell them to make them fully understand how special this place is. When you leave, it hits everybody.”
Perhaps not quite as hard as it does Te’o, whose driving forces in life – his spirituality and his family bond – gave him a more mature perspective than the average 18-to-23-year old normally possesses, particularly at a place like Notre Dame.
“Fortunately, I realized how special this place is while I was here,” Te’o said. “Sometimes you have to stop for a moment, look around, and see how blessed you are and how much this place loves you.”
Te’o still thinks back to when he chose Notre Dame over USC and other schools that, on the surface, made the most sense upon first consideration, but dropped off when the moment of truth arrived.
“It was more than just living a dream; it was an answer to a prayer that I prayed about four years earlier when I was asking, ‘Where should I go?’” Te’o recalled.
“I wanted to go to a school in California and I prayed about it, and that last year (2012) was more than just a dream; it was an answer as to why I was sent here. It wasn’t just the stuff I was experiencing on the field. It was off the field with the fans, the whole feeling of this place.”
Te’o vividly recalls his final game at Notre Dame Stadium versus Wake Forest.
“I’ll never forget Senior Day when I ran out of that tunnel for the last time,” Te’o said. “When I left the field for the last time, when coach called a timeout, he called Kap (Lewis-Moore) off, Zeke (Motta) off and then I came off… Just to hear that roar…
“My parents got up (from their seats), and everybody stood up and gave them a standing O. No place like Notre Dame.”
Life took a sharp turn from there. Not only did Te’o play his worst game of the ’12 season against Alabama – prompting questions as to whether he was as good as the arm-full of trophies indicated and whether he was worthy of a first-round draft selection – but the feel-good story of the college football season suddenly exploded.
The hoax turned Te’o’s life upside down.
“I got through it by pulling closer to the people that supported me – my family and the Notre Dame family,” Te’o said. “I held true to them and they supported me. The Heavenly Father helped me through everything.
“Now that I’m on the other side of it, and I can look back on it, I know I was young and I’ve found out how strong I really am. To be able to go through that and smile through it all…At times it was hard, at times it was overwhelming, but I can look back and say, ‘I got through it.’”
Te’o can now look back on it, even laugh at it – or at least accept the jokes that still pop up on stadium signs and tweets – and put it all in perspective.
“There’s always a reason why something happens and there’s always a way to get through it,” Te’o said. “There’s a lesson to be learned. Life and football are so alike. We learn more from our losses in football than our wins, just like in life, we learn more from those times of adversity than the times of triumph.
“The most important thing about adversity is that we learn the lesson. If you don’t learn the lesson why you lost, you’re going to keep losing. If you don’t learn the lesson why this thing happened to you, somehow life has a tendency to repeat itself. It’s definitely made me stronger.”
On the field in San Diego, things haven’t gone smoothly either. After falling to the 2nd round/38th overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft, Te’o suffered a right foot injury that caused him to miss the first three regular-season games of his NFL career and led to surgery. An unrelated right foot injury and a badly sprained left ankle in ’14 reduced his playing time to 10 games.
But as the second year of his professional career came to a close, Te’o finished on an uptick with a career-high 11 tackles in Week 16 and another career-high 13 tackles in Week 17. He also made his first career interception in Week 14 against New England’s Tom Brady.
“I’m (healthy) now, but it was difficult at first,” said Te’o of the foot injuries. “It slowed me down. Bumps in my road, but with every bump, you live and you learn and you get stronger from it.
“I’m very grateful for every opportunity I get to step on the gridiron and get out there and play. It’s a blessing to be able to play the game I love. It’s fun, but at the same time it’s business. It’s your job. It’s something that you do 24/7/365. I love doing it. That’s why I’m still doing it.”
When Te’o spots Notre Dame vice president/athletics director Jack Swarbrick along the Notre Dame Stadium sideline, it takes him back to the off-the-field adversity he faced.
“I call him Uncle Jack,” says Te’o, breaking into that I’m-at-peace expression. “When Jack went up there and defended me…That’s why I feel so strongly about Notre Dame and the people at Notre Dame.
“My parents miss Notre Dame. Sometimes I think they miss Notre Dame more than me, which is impossible. It’s not possible that anybody misses this school as much as I do.”