I have been a Notre Dame fan my entire life. I have attended the University, and have my own stories about how the Notre Dame family can impact your life. There are countless amazing people that have come and gone through the University and the football program.
Other than Father Hesburgh, there is one person who I feel has embodied the Notre Dame spirit more than any other. And he is still enrolled in classes.
Manti Te'o is the unlikeliest of heroes for Notre Dame. Te'o is a devout Mormon from Laie, Hawaii who attended Punahao school in Manoa, Honolulu and a lifelong USC fan. Notre Dame had no business being in his final four along with BYU, USC and UCLA at the end of his recruitment. His campus visit came during the most embarassing loss in Notre Dame history against Syracuse in the bitter cold and snow.
But as he prepared to don a USC cap to finish his recruitment, Te'o decided to say a little prayer that morning. And that prayer changed everything for not only Manti Te'o, but arguably for the entire trajectory of the University of Notre Dame and college football itself.
Te'o came to Notre Dame and met expectations, despite being the #1 overall defensive prospect and #2 overall player according to many recruiting services. He was a freshman All-American under Weis his first year before the embattled coach was finally let go.
But Te'o didn't let that derail his career at Notre Dame. It would have been easy to jump ship, complete his Mormon mission, then head to USC, and finish out his career. But he held course with the hiring of new coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, decided to delay his mission, and returned to campus. He led the team in tackles and finished as a second-team All-American by CNNSI his sophomore year.
As a junior, he continued to impress, again leading in tackles and finishing the season a near-consensus second team All-American and the FBS Independent Defensive Player of the Year.
Entering his senior season, he was a pre-season favorite to do more of the same for his senior season, possibly contending for the yearly positional and defensive awards like Butkus, Nagurski, etc. But his team's schedule was too daunting to expect anything more than MAYBE a BCS bowl for his senior season.
But this is why I believe he embodies the Notre Dame Spirit.
Organizations of all types tend to take on the characteristics of their leaders. Te'o was the unquestioned leader of this defense, and they took on his personality. Selflessness, discipline, dedication, work ethic, faith, passion and quiet confidence in ability. And this defense embraced their leader heading into battle.
And then a funny thing happened on the way to another typical Notre Dame season. The team's leader was beset by not one, but two heart-wrenching tragedies only hours apart.
The resultant media hype that catapulted Te'o into the Heisman watch has subsided somewhat in the media as the ESPN media machine sought out more exciting offensive players to hype. First Geno Smith, then Colin Klein, then Kenjon Barner, then Johnny Manziel. And all the while, Te'o has kept the faith.
And lest you believe all of the ESPN talking heads, Te'o appears to be heading for at least one first-place vote for the Heisman Trophy - the Nissan fan vote. Te'o (last I checked) has accounted for nearly 30% of all votes cast.
And now the Irish program is sitting on the cusp of history. Te'o has impressed so much, even despite the well-publicized adversity facing him personally off the field, and plenty of adversity on the field as well - needing a goal-line stand against Stanford and some luck of the Irish in triple overtime versus Pitt. But despite the odds, he has led this team to perfection through 10 games. And, quietly, Te'o still lives his faith on a day-to-day basis. A story on FOX Sports tells of how Te'o reached out to a family in the midst of their own grief to share with them his faith and support them as he struggled with his own pain and suffering. And no, that was not some trumped up media hype dying cancer kid story by ND's media machine - Te'o told nobody about it, and it was a friend of the family that tipped the writer, not ND or Te'o.
This interview was released today, and I couldn't help but be struck by how articulate, humble and genuine Te'o is. His character and maturity are incredible, and he has become an excellent spokesperson for the University of Notre Dame.
And as we prepare for the final home game in Notre Dame Stadium for this magical season, it is also Senior Day for Manti Te'o. Considering how much this young man has meant for this team, this season, this University and the many thousands of people he has touched by his daily actions living his faith, this will be an emotional moment for Notre Dame Nation. I know I won't be the only person in the stands choking back emotion as he leaves Notre Dame Stadium for the final time.
I am proud to call Manti Te'o a true Notre Dame Man. Thank you, Manti, for all of your hard work and sacrifice for Notre Dame. It will never be forgotten.
"If I am on God's team, then I can't be beat."