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November 14, 2012

Te'o establishing legend status

Manti Te'o sat in the Leighton Concert Hall last December during Notre Dame's awards show as a video projected onto the stage. He watched the parents of Notre Dame's seniors reflect on their sons' careers, sometimes with laughter, often with tears.

Barely 48 hours later, Te'o announced he'd return for his senior year. And come this weekend he'll get his own senior moment when he takes the Notre Dame Stadium field for the final time.

"I think that was the tipping point for me on whether or not I was going to enter into the draft or not," Te'o said. "To see that, that was that moment where I said, 'Yeah, I know what I'm going to do.' To see that video and see just the joy in their parents' eyes and see the joy in my teammates eyes. 

"Because I had some teammates that ran out in full gear about to play and some that came out on crutches. Each of them had the same expression on their face: just joy. That's something that money can't buy. Money can't buy that experience. 

"I'm very grateful that I'll be able to experience that with my family."

The moment figures to move not just Te'o and the 40 family members making the trip to South Bend, but the sellout crowd of 80,795 too.

Te'o sat in the stands for senior day four years ago when Notre Dame lost to Syracuse and the student section lobbed snowballs at the players. He left at halftime to watch from the Guglielmino Complex, fleeing a depressing scene but not escaping the sentiment around campus.

Even in that defeat, Te'o said he sensed something different at Notre Dame, something that kept the Irish program in his thoughts moving toward National Signing Day when he shocked college football by inking with the Irish over USC.

The linebacker has been a walking, breathing, tackling recruiting pitch for Notre Dame ever since. He's not only helped assemble the current roster of talent, he's put in time to help Brian Kelly build one of the nation's top classes for next year, high school athletes that Te'o will never play with in South Bend.

"I tell them, 'Hey, when you're a champion at other school you're a champion. When you're a champion at Notre Dame, you become a legend,'" Te'o said. "For me, it wasn't hard for me to decide. We weren't doing so well, and yet still there were talks about legendary status. Just imagine if you've experienced a successful season what that would look like. 

"So the people here, it's a family. It's not a school, it's a family. I've experienced that. I've met people that I used to watch as a little kid, and just being able to shake their hand and to know that they wore the same uniform and helmet and played for the same standards that I play for today is definitely something that you don't experience everywhere else."

It's hard to believe Te'o could be a Heisman Trophy candidate anywhere else either.

Te'o said he never thought about that kind of hardware when he signed with Notre Dame four years ago, aside from winning it virtually while playing video games. While that trophy has been mentioned to Te'o all season, he said that's not where his focus sits.
 
"I think when my name is being tossed around as a national champion, that's what I'm looking for," Te'o said. "You ask any Heisman winner that wasn't a national champion what they would rather be, and I think they would rather be the latter, a national champion.

"So that's what I want. I rather be holding a crystal ball than a bronze statue. That's just me."





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