5 puts Fight in Irish

Through tragedy, Te’o has been an inspirational Heisman hopeful

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Teo has been the picture of strength for the Fighting Irish this season. Despite the death of his grandmother and girlfriend within hours of each other, hes been playing at a Heisman level. Enlarge photo

Darron Cummings/Associated Press file photo

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Teo has been the picture of strength for the Fighting Irish this season. Despite the death of his grandmother and girlfriend within hours of each other, hes been playing at a Heisman level.

SOUTH BEND, Ind.

The profile page on the Twitter account of Manti Teo doesnt say hes a Notre Dame linebacker, that hes being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate or that hes a Sports Illustrated cover boy.

Instead, it features a quote from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas: Life is a storm. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.

Teo has been through a storm.

His maternal grandmother, Annette Santiago, died in Hawaii after a long illness Sept. 11, and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died in California of leukemia several hours later. Teo didnt miss a practice that week, choosing to be with his teammates as the Irish prepared for their game at then-No. 10 Michigan State, even though coach Brian Kelly told him he didnt need to be there.

Teo calls it the hardest thing hes ever had to do.

To be able to operate and to be able to try to continue with my daily routine, but knowing that I just lost a woman that I truly loved, that was the hardest thing, he said.

The task was made even harder knowing he couldnt attend her funeral in Carson City, Calif. He said Kekua had made him promise he wouldnt miss a game, instead asking him to honor her with his play.

Teo did that. He had 12 tackles, one for a loss, and broke up two passes in the win against Michigan State. A week later, he had two interceptions, leading to a touchdown and a field goal, in a 13-6 win over Michigan in which he had eight tackles. The Irish defense didnt give up a touchdown in the two games.

The performances caught the attention of his teammates, his classmates and college football fans across the country.

At that time he may have been a little weak inside, but he never showed it out, defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. He stayed strong. Watching him kept us going strong.

Teo has been the driving force behind the best Notre Dame defense in at least a decade, leading the Irish to their 5-0 start and their No. 9 ranking. He has played a role in seven of the 13 turnovers forced by the Irish, intercepting three passes, recovering two fumbles and hurrying the quarterback twice on passes that were intercepted.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco believes the 6-2, 255-pound Teo is the finest football player in college, saying he can power his way through blocks but moves like a much smaller player.

Hes a unique blend of being able to be kind and good and courteous and warm and friendly when hes not inside the gates or inside the stripes, and then when hes in there hes an absolute warrior, Diaco said.

Teos father, Brian, believes part of that is its a Polynesian trait, citing Junior Seau and Troy Polamalu as examples. He also believes its partially related to Teos Mormon upbringing.

He understands that his actions have a direct impact on those who are watching him and also the fact that his actions and decision-making does have a direct reflection on the family, on both my wife and I, he said. We both remind him constantly.

His father said Teo also works hard at his craft because he knows another talented athlete is working just as hard.

He knows when he meets that person hes going to have to be at the top of his game in order to compete with him, he said.

Teo has 362 career tackles and is on pace to finish third on Notre Dames all-time list behind Bob Crable (1978-81), who had 521, and Bob Golic (1975-78), who had 479. Crable calls Teo one of the best players hes seen at Notre Dame.

He has great speed. He knows where the football is, he said. Unfortunately for him, as far as the tackling record goes, the game has changed so much. I dont know how anyone can get the tackles some of us old guys got just because they dont run the ball as much.

Kelly said what separates Teo from other stars is he knows the names of every player on the team, even the walk-ons.

He doesnt call them, Hey, 42, or 57. He knows each of those guys. ... Thats pretty unique, he said.

Student body President Brett Rocheleau said classmates love Teo because hes one of them. He takes part in campus events; hes seen walking around carrying his backpack and talking with other students.

Every story you hear about Manti is that he is a genuinely nice guy. Hes one that is easy to talk to. He goes out of his way to carry on conversations, he said.

The students showed their love for Teo by chanting his name and wearing leis at the Michigan game and pep rally. Teo jumped up in the crowd to celebrate the victory with them.

I felt a sense of peace knowing that so many people cared about Manti instead of No. 5, he said.

He was able to get home for his grandmothers funeral during the bye week and said he feels rejuvenated before the Irish beat Miami 41-3 on Saturday night in Chicago.

Ive never felt so strong, spiritually strong, he said. I could never thank the student body and the fans around the world for their all-love and all their prayers and support. I truly felt all of that, and its helped me to get past, help me get through these past three weeks, and Im truly grateful, and Im truly humbled.

Manti Teo is getting a lot of help from above these days. He lost his grandmother to illness Sept. 11, then hours later lost his girlfriend to cancer. He played the next week  and played well  in another Notre Dame victory. Simply functioning while knowing that I just lost a woman that I truly loved, that was the hardest thing, he said. Enlarge photo

Darron Cummings/Associated Press file photo

Manti Teo is getting a lot of help from above these days. He lost his grandmother to illness Sept. 11, then hours later lost his girlfriend to cancer. He played the next week and played well in another Notre Dame victory. Simply functioning while knowing that I just lost a woman that I truly loved, that was the hardest thing, he said.