Taking the Road Less Traveled
Manti Te’o couldn’t imagine living the rest of his life without the memory of a senior year in South Bend; nor, for that matter, could the Irish fans who witnessed him in 2012.
On Dec. 11, 2011, Te’o announced that’d he’d forego the 2012 NFL Draft and remain at the school that had embraced him for three years with all of the warmth of a family member or a Hawaiian sunrise. The decision caught many people by surprise, even Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. However, the linebacker from the island of Oahu has never been one to live life in a conventional manner.
A little over four years ago, Te’o was one of the most coveted recruits in America, both on and off the mainland. The blue-chip prospect and life-long USC admirer appeared destined for Troy; the weather, the tradition, the relative proximity to his parents. BYU, too, made good sense since it was a national program and an institution that would have meshed rather nicely with Te’o’s deep Mormon faith. But Notre Dame to play at a Midwest Catholic school? While the decision didn’t fit everyone else’s expectation on Signing Day, there was something tugging the linebacker to South Bend that would set in motion one of the greatest careers in Irish history.
So when Te’o put off the riches of the NFL for one final season of glory at Notre Dame, it really shouldn’t have been that big of a shocker after all. For the deeply spiritual and introspective young man, who always places “we” above “me”, the move made perfect sense. The big payday would still be there in the future. The chance to be the linchpin for a football renaissance at college football’s most hallowed program comes along once in a lifetime.
To truly appreciate Te’o’s final campaign as an amateur, a quick history lesson is required. Prior to the start of the 2012 season, Notre Dame remained mired in college football’s purgatory, its national relevancy on a steady decline. Just twice since 1994 had the program won 10 games in a season … or won a bowl game for that matter. The pipeline from South Bend to the NFL and various All-American squads has been unusually dry over the past decade. The dome remained golden, but the shine had been dulled considerably by a prolonged stretch of mediocrity.
A revival was sorely needed in 2012. It was Kelly’s third season in South Bend, and fans were—once again—becoming restless. In their opinion, the bar was always set at a BCS bowl game, which hadn’t been earned since 2007. Expectations, though, in the preseason were, at best, modest. The Irish were facing question marks on offense, especially at quarterback, and the schedule was labeled the country’s thorniest. Maybe 8-4. Maybe worse. Maybe no one considered the impact that one motivated and inspired senior could have on the teammates around him.
Te’o is that unique athlete, who can’t be properly sized up by his statistics or his measurables. Oh, his numbers and his work on film are exceptional; he’s just the second player in Notre Dame history to tally at least 100 tackles in three separate seasons, and his seven interceptions in 2012 were the most by an FBS linebacker in 11 years.
“From a physical standpoint, Te’o is an explosive and instinctive inside linebacker,” said noted NFL Draft expert Mike Mayock, the analyst for NBC’s broadcasts of Notre Dame games. “He dropped 10 or 12 pounds prior to the start of the season, which helped make him quicker and better in pass coverage. I like that he recognized a weakness and took steps to repair it—those seven interceptions as a senior compared to zero combined in his first three years.”
However, Te’o’s greatest assets are his ability to inspire, come up with timely big plays and make those around him better. He is the quintessential tone-setter, a momentum-changer from the defensive side of the ball, much the way Reggie White, Mike Singletary and Ray Lewis were for so many seasons in the NFL.
“He’s one of those rare players who can elevate the surrounding personnel,” added Mayock. “He’s a mentor to the young kids, and is respected by everyone in the program. He really was the emotional leader of that team last fall.”
When the 2012 season began, Te’o was already an accomplished college player, a reigning Second Team All-American. What was missing on his resume was the overall team success that he so dearly craved. He didn’t come to South Bend for eight-win seasons and December trips to El Paso. He made the unexpected journey in order to help get the Irish back into the hunt for national championships, which hadn’t happened in a quarter-century. And that’s exactly what transpired last fall.
Without warning, Notre Dame made the highly improbable trek from unranked in the summer to top-ranked once the regular season came to an end at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Nov. 24. Twelve wins. No losses. No one could have possibly seen this coming, not even the most ardent and optimistic Irish fan. Conquering a schedule once considered insurmountable was the direct result of a defense that yielded a nation’s-low 10 points per game prior to the BCS National Championship Game loss to Alabama in Miami. And no one on that defense was more instrumental to the unit’s success than No. 5.
Obviously, the nasty Notre Dame D was a clear collaboration of the coaching of coordinator Bob Diaco and a rock-solid front seven headed by DE Stephon Tuitt, NG Louis Nix III and LB Prince Shembo. But everyone on the defensive side of the ball took their lead from Te’o, whose pre-game intensity, on-field energy and knack for making key stops when the outcome hung in the balance helped elevate an entire program to heights it hadn’t seen in a generation. The linebacker became the embodiment of a reawakening of the echoes, the likes of which caught an entire sport by surprise.
The Irish cleared each hurdle of the regular season schedule, handling four ranked opponents, Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford and Oklahoma, during a six-game stretch. And while it took every ounce of effort, from the depths of the roster to each member of the coaching staff, to sweep the schedule, Te’o was the physical and emotional catalyst each week of the fall. Diaco put it best when he said, “Manti has an extra heartbeat that you and I don't have, and he can motivate others to have one, too.”
Te’o’s haul of individual honors in 2012 includes the Maxwell and Bednarik Awards to become the first player to cop both awards in the same season, and the first defensive player to win the Maxwell Award since Hugh Green in 1980. Te’o’s overstuffed trophy case is testament to a player who not only maximized his own ability on the field, but also helped do the same for the teammates in his own locker room. Yeah, he fell 60 minutes short of bringing a national championship back to South Bend, but for helping bridge the long divide back to the glory days, Te’o will forever be remembered as one of the most influential players in the modern era of Notre Dame football.
“Being in the same class, and going through the process over the last four years, I can say that Manti deserved all that he earned in 2012,” offered Irish S Zeke Motta. “He was not only a great player, but a great friend as well. Manti leads by example, and the younger guys, in particular, really looked up to him. He thrives off family, and Notre Dame has truly been his family since he got here.”
No individual performed better or meant more to his team than Manti Te’o did in 2012. Yet, more than any goal line stand or outstretched interception, his final season will be marked by his humility, authenticity and unconventional passion to lead the university that almost didn’t land him four years ago. Notre Dame did sign Te’o in 2009, inciting a chain of events that promises to positively impact both sides for a very long time. The linebacker has left his mark on the game of college football. The school will never be the same after serving as his home for the past four seasons.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.