Manti Te’o exited Notre Dame Stadium at dusk on Thursday, walking on Moose Krause Circle toward the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.
He was alone. He was home.
Te’o returned to campus this week to show respects for professor Robert Sedlack, who died Saturday night after a battle with ALS. It was Sedlack who captured Te’o’s imagination in the classroom while teaching graphic design, the former All-American’s major. Sedlack played the part of advisor too, talking Te’o through the merits of returning to Notre Dame for his final season.
You probably remember it.
Notre Dame went to the BCS National Championship Game and Te’o was a Heisman Trophy finalist.
“He was one of the main guys who influenced me to come back for my senior year after a long conversation,” Te’o said. “He affected me not only as a student, it’s the effect he had on me beyond the classroom.”
When Te’o learned of Sedlack’s death he asked out of OTA’s with the San Diego Chargers, where he continues to fight for his NFL place. Te’o missed a day of that off-season routine, flew back to South Bend on Wednesday night and attended the funeral the next morning.
He’ll return to the West Coast on Saturday after helping with the program’s symposium on life after football and attending the fantasy camp last night. Dressed in Under Armour Notre Dame gear – “I’m with Nike, don’t tell no one” – Te’o walked the sidelines for the first time since the spring game two years ago when he was still a national oddity after the Ronaiah Tuiasosopo hoax washed out his idyllic senior year.
How Notre Dame responded to the blitz of its poster boy still resonates with Te’o.
It probably always will.
“They always took me under their wing and always cared for me,” Te’o said. “Uncle Jack, I call him Uncle Jack Swarbrick, when he went up and defended me, that spoke volumes. That’s one of the answers to my prayers.
“The prayer that I had six years ago when I was trying to decide where I should go, I felt this was the place that I should be and I didn’t know why. That whole time was the answer, (God said,) ‘That’s why I sent you here. I didn’t send you here to win all these games, I sent you here to meet all these great people.’”
On Thursday night inside the stadium, that included fantasy campers and their kids, lining up for autographs. Between interviews and a punting competition with Matthias Farley, Te’o signed. Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand found Te’o to thank him for coming. Te’o told him he’d be sticking around for Notre Dame’s organized summer workouts on Friday.
As much as people wanted a piece of the old No. 5, Te’o still appreciates how many here saw him as more student than athlete.
Sedlack did, not that football never entered into their relationship.
His son Trey gave Te’o a football before his senior year after a pick six during a youth football game, captured on video by the professor. At that point Te’o hadn’t made an interception in his Irish career. Trey told him he needed to get started. Te’o finished with seven during that undefeated regular season.
“I’d always tell him it’s because of you and that ball you gave me,” Te’o said. “For me, (coming back) is something that’s expected. Family does that. I consider them my family. That’s something that I wanted to do and something that I had to do. It wasn’t a question for me to come here.”
Sedlack was survived by Trey, his daughter Emma and his wife Theresa. He played football in high school while growing up in Greencastle, Ind., where his father, Robert Sedlack Sr., taught English at DePauw University, shaping a different generation of students, including this journalist in an American Lit course 19 years ago.
Sedlack joined the Notre Dame faculty in 1998 and taught undergraduate and graduate graphic design courses that addressed racial discrimination, gun control, voter participation, xenophobia, immigrant rights and AIDS care.
His impact on Te’o alone affected Notre Dame’s football program in a timeless way, shaping a player of generational significance. Even at a University that can be relentlessly unique, Te’o will always be authentically original.
Sedlack helped design that.
“He didn’t treat me as No. 5. He treated me as Manti,” Te’o said. “I loved it and respect that about him. He was always that guy that always knew that I could do better. He always pushed me to be more than just a football player. He said that I was a pretty good designer too. I was like, ‘You must be crazy.’ He had faith in me.
“That’s what made this place so special.”