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October 3, 2012

Te'o finds closure, strength

Manti Te'o stayed at Notre Dame and helped his team to momentous victories over Michigan State and Michigan while mourning the deaths of his grandmother, Annette Santiago, and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua.

Finally, during Notre Dame's bye week, Te'o was able to return to his home in Laie, Hawaii to be with family and put closure on the most difficult time in his life.

"It was just an amazing experience for me to have some closure and say goodbye to my grandma, see my family, make sure everybody was okay and make sure my mom was okay," said Te'o Wednesday from the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.

"My mom's a strong woman. She was actually worried about me. It was nice to be with them. I'll see my parents in a week. It'll be nice to see them soon."

Te'o played perhaps his best football in a Notre Dame uniform in the wake of his sorrow, totaling 20 tackles, two tackles for loss, two interceptions, two pass break-ups, a fumble recovery and a quarterback hurry in Notre Dame's victories over Michigan State and Michigan.

"That was possibly the hardest thing I've had to do so far," Te'o said. "To be able to operate and continue with my daily routine while knowing I just lost two women who I truly love was difficult.

"My relationship with my Heavenly Father has never been stronger, and I think that has a definite connection with how I've been doing on the football field."

It was during this time that talk of Te'o evolving into a Heisman Trophy candidate began, followed by a Sports Illustrated cover story after Notre Dame moved to 4-0 with a home victory over Michigan.

Kekua, who died after a battle with leukemia, insisted that Te'o stay at Notre Dame and continue playing football should she pass during the season.

"I really wanted to see her, but I knew that she made me promise, 'If anything happens to me, you'll stay over there and you'll play. You'll honor me through the way you play. I'd rather have you there,'" Te'o recalled.

"All she wanted was some white roses. White was here favorite color, so I sent her roses and sent her two picks (interceptions) along with that."

Te'o said it was Kekua who had told him to always remain humble.

"This experience has truly humbled me and strengthened my relationship with my Heavenly Father," Te'o said. "I've always said that if I'm on God's team, I can't be beat. If I'm on God's team, there's nobody that can stand against me.

"So losing my girlfriend and my grandma has really strengthened my relationship with my Heavenly Father, and I felt his presence in my life. I hope that has shown by the way I've played and conducted myself on and off the field."

Te'o's heart was the heaviest prior to the Michigan game when, during the team's walk through the Notre Dame campus to the stadium, he asked defensive coordinator Bob Diaco for the time. Diaco said it was 12:01 (ET), one minute after the scheduled closing of Kekua's casket in California.

"I've never felt so strong, spiritually strong, and I could never thank the student body and the fans around the world for all their love and prayers and support," Te'o said. "It's helped me get through these past three weeks, and I'm truly grateful and humbled. I can't thank them enough.

"I can't describe how I was feeling. I felt a sense of peace that I had so many people that cared about Manti instead of No. 5, and I had the feeling that people are starting to understand what life is truly about.

"Football is just a game, and then there's the game of life. I'm just happy I was able to be a part of that experience and see all that support for myself and my family and those who have lost loved ones."

Te'o cited Irish teammates TJ Jones and Stephon Tuitt, both of whom have lost their fathers in the last year or so.

"This is for everybody who has lost a loved one," Te'o said. "It shows that families are forever."

Te'o says he's on a mission at Notre Dame, which replaced the typical two-year mission that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints normally take.

"It's the same process that I went through to make my decision to come here," Te'o said. "I got on my knees and prayed and fasted, and asked my Heavenly Father what He wanted me to do.

"Is serving a two-year mission my mission, or can I stay here at Notre Dame and make my life my mission and the things I do here at Notre Dame? Could that be my mission? Could I do my missionary work through that? I just felt that I could, and I hope what I've done so far is equal to that."

Te'o believes his life lesson has benefited the whole team.

"It was another experience for our team to grow," Te'o said. "It goes to show the type of players we have in this locker room. They helped lift me up and supported me. The family feel with this team is very special. When you're playing for somebody else besides yourself, you can do some special things."

One of the credos by which Te'o lives his life is a passage from "The Count of Monte Cristo": Life is a storm, my young friend. 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. You must look into that storm and shout as you did in Rome. Do your worst, for I will do mine! Then the fates will know you as we know you: as Albert Mondego, the man!

"When that storm does come, what foundation do I have?" Te'o said. "What am I going to lean on? I learned that I'm going to lean on my Heavenly Father and I'm going to lean on my family and I'm going to lean on my teammates. I've learned that when life gets hard, try walking on your knees."

Coming from a man named Manti, it all makes sense.





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