Manti Te'o makes himself at home again at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — He came to say goodbye to a fallen friend, but saying hello again to Notre Dame this week coaxed almost as many tears for Manti Te’o.

“This place just means that much to me,” the former All-America linebacker said Thursday evening as he took in the finale to the school’s fantasy football camp at Notre Dame Stadium.

“Definitely looks different. Still have the same memories walking around this place.”

It’s been two years since the 24-year-old Laie, Hawaii, product has been back. And his primary motivation for doing so was Notre Dame professor Robert P. Sedlack Jr., who died in his sleep Saturday at age 47 and whose life was celebrated at a Thursday morning Mass at Sacred Heart Basilica.

Sedlack was officially a professor of visual communication and design. But his reach was said to have gone far beyond the classroom, prompting many of his students to use to design to make statements to bring about social justice.

For Te’o, Sedlack was like family. In fact, Sedlack’s son, Trey, autographed a football for Te’o when the linebacker was a senior on an unbeaten Irish team in 2012 heading for a national title date with Alabama, and the younger Sedlack was an 8-year-old flag football player.

Te’o kept the ball in his locker and touched it before every game for good luck in that 2012 season, the one in which he finished runner-up to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel for the Heisman Trophy.

“His son (Trey) and his daughter, Emma, and his wife, Theresa, I was real close to all of them,” Te’o said. “So I definitely had to come.”

In fact, Robert Sedlack was one of several strong reasons there was a senior season for Te’o at Notre Dame. In December of 2011, Te’o surprised even his parents by not jumping into the 2012 NFL Draft pool a year early.

“He was not only my professor, but somebody who I trusted, somebody who had a lot of impact on my life,” Te’o said. “My conversation with him my junior year was very influential in my decision to stay. He and I have been in contact since I left.

“He came to my preseason game against the (Chicago) Bears my rookie year in which I wasn’t playing. He still came.”

A foot injury that required surgery delayed Te’o’s NFL debut in 2013, though he started the final 13 regular-season games for the Chargers, a team that traded up to draft him early in the second round. And he collected 61 tackles in those games and 14 more over two playoff games as the radioactivity of the notorious internet hoax he became entangled with in the weeks leading up to the draft began to fade.

A second injury to the same (right) foot knocked Te’o out of a couple of preseason games last season, before a fracture to again the same foot took him out of five games in the middle of the Chargers’ 2014 regular season.

When the 6-foot-1, 241-pounder returned, his evolution picked up momentum. In the second-to-last game of the season for the Chargers, Te’o truly became an every-down player, something many analysts believed would never happen for him on the pro level.

He logged action in each of San Diego’s 74 defensive snaps in a 38-35 come-from-behind win at San Francisco and recorded a career-high 11 tackles and a key sack of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick along the way.

"I think he’s really come on," Chargers coach Mike McCoy said after the 49ers game. "He’s got a bright future for us. I think the more he plays, the more experience he has in the system, the better he’s going to be.”

The next week he hit a new benchmark with 13 tackles in a season-ending 19-7 loss at Kansas City.

“I’ve always known and had confidence in myself that I am a three-down player,” Te’o said. “I’m given that opportunity, and I feel like I’m making the best out of it. I’m looking forward to being that player. As long as I’m out on that field, I feel comfortable.”

And he got comfortable very quickly back at Notre Dame this week. He and four other former Irish standouts — John Carlson, Marc Edwards, Steve Beuerlein and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown — spoke to the current Irish squad Thursday about the impact Notre Dame has beyond football.

Te’o also got to hear current defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder talking at very loud decibels, to fantasy campers, no less, and to touch base with the next percolating All-America linebacker, junior Jaylon Smith.

“I’m excited for him,” said Te’o, who got to know Smith when the elder linebacker was a college senior and Smith was a recruit. “He’s like a little brother to me. And if he has any questions or anything, he knows who to come to.

“I’m proud of him, because he’s stayed hungry. He’s constantly improved. He’s constantly gotten better, and you can see it. He’s more mature in the decisions he makes on the football field.

“I just told him, ‘To take it to the next level, there’s a player that can make himself better and there’s a player that can make everyone around him better.’ And he’s starting to do that.”

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San Diego Chargers linebacker Manti Te'o (50) was back on the Notre Dame campus this week. (AP Photo/DENIS POROY)