From September 17, 2012: Te'o battles through tragedy

Notre Dame linebacker somehow elevates game, despite the heartbreak

South Bend Tribune

This column was originally published Sept. 17, 2012.

Emotion had been exhausted.

The tank was empty. Manti Te'o was running of fumes. Game over. Now what?

Behind the Notre Dame football team's All-American linebacker, a jazzed-up student section cascaded a salute: MAN-TIE TAY-OH; MAN-TIE TAY-OH.

Eyes stayed riveted on the ground. Te'o, seemingly grudgingly shuffled toward the Spartan Stadium tunnel Saturday night. He understood the deal -- once he left his element, it allowed a painful reality to return. The insulation of his football world no longer would offer protection.

Life caused Te'o to face tragedy twice last week. Football took a backseat to the fact he would no longer see his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who lost her battle with leukemia, as well as his grandmother, Annette Santiago.

Before leaving the sod, he stopped, raised his eyes, pointed skyward, then disappeared.

Earlier, during Notre Dame's 20-3 demolition of Michigan State, the very sensitive 6-foot-2, 255-pound senior, allowed himself a similar recognition -- in front of more than 79,000 fans and a national television audience -- after a tackle for loss.

"That's for them," Te'o said. "That's for my girl. That's for my grandma. That's for all my loved ones who had passed on, who have helped me get to this point. I know they're all watching. It was ... It was a happy moment."

Te'o used the game as a diversion; an escape. At the same time, he ratcheted up his performance to a new level. He collected 12 tackles, a tackle for loss and recovered a fumble. Sunday, he was selected the Walter Camp Foundation's National Defensive Player of the Week.

"(Football is) a great escape," Te'o said. "I'll be honest, throughout the game, you still think about it. Football allows me to be in a little realm; a little world where I know that I can just honor them by the way I play and honor my family by the way I play."

"The entire defense is his family," Irish coach Brian Kelly said. "During this tough time, all he wanted to do was to be at practice with his teammates. All those kids in there were pulling for Manti. Manti raised his level, too.

"He's so strong for everybody. This was a time when everybody wanted to help him out. I've never seen that dynamic among a group of players. It's a pretty close locker room."

Te'o is the face, voice, heart and soul of the Irish defense. Saturday's mission was to put the clamps on Spartan running back Le'Veon Bell and force Michigan State out of its offensive comfort zone. Bell managed 77 net yards on 19 carries and the Spartans were held without a touchdown at home for the first time since losing to Central Michigan, 20-3, in 1991.

"We had a game plan going in - everybody getting to the ball; everybody having that tenacity and working together; everybody doing their job; and having that edge about them," Te'o said. "We ran up against a good team. I'm just glad we came out with a win.

"We were aware that their weapon was (Bell). If we could stop their weapon, they were going to have to do something they're not as comfortable doing. If we can stop what they like to do, that would be our best chance. Our guys were focused and they came to play."

Still, sometimes playing with a heavy heart can impact focus.

"It was hard, you know. I mean, I lost two women that I truly loved," Te'o said. "I had my family around me. I had my football family around me. I had my girlfriend's family around me.

"At the end of the day, families are forever. I'm going to see them again, and it's going to be a very happy day when I do.

"My family and my girlfriend's family have received so much love and support from the Notre Dame family. Michigan State fans showed some love. It just goes to show that people understand that football's just a game. It's a game we have fun playing. But what matters is the people around you and your family."

That being the case, Te'o appeared torn on his next move. He mentioned that he has never been on a 3-0 team at Notre Dame. The Irish haven't played as significant a game this late in the season as they face Saturday night at home against Michigan, since 2002, when they started with eight victories.

Yet, talking about his next move might have been the toughest question he faced Saturday night.

"I'm (pause) ... I don't (pause) Whether I leave (pause) ... I'm going to be here," Te'o finally said. "At the end of the day, they're still watching. My family is trying to plan around my schedule. We'll see what happens."

Kelly said Sunday that Te'o would play Saturday against the Wolverines. Te'o was expected to travel to Hawaii either Tuesday or Wednesday during the bye week.

Nothing's easy after walking through the tunnel.