Te'o's Decision to Return About More Than Football

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South Bend Tribune - It wasn't until the morning after, when the tears of exhilaration started flowing one more time and Brian Te'o's cell phone started blowing up all over again, that it hit him.

No one in the Te'o family had actually called Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly directly late Sunday night to deliver the momentous news that Te'o's son, junior linebacker Manti Te'o, was returning to school for his senior year.

Half a continent away and perhaps intuitively, Kelly sensed that this was the way Te'o's decision, about a dip in the NFL Draft pool a year early, was headed in the past few weeks. A chain of calls through the sports information staff found Kelly elated but hardly stunned.

Word that Te'o and best friend since childhood, Irish wide receiver Robby Toma, had been apartment-hunting spilled out to the more majestic offices in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, but that was all about logistics and contingencies, not about what was in Te'o's heart.

Which is exactly where the decision ended up being made.

"I'm so proud of him," said Brian Te'o, who watched his son make an 11th-hour switch from USC to Notre Dame based on a leap of faith -- a leap of, really, blind faith -- in February 2009.

"In the end, this decision had nothing to do with football, and that's the greatest thing. It's not about football. It's about being guided to a place that's special."

And coming full circle and redefining just who Manti Te'o is.

The Laie, Hawaii, product made the decision in Newport Beach, Calif., of all places, blurting out his intentions in the spur of the moment to his parents, a Fox Sports regional TV audience and the Twitter universe at an awards banquet for the Lott Impact Trophy, for which Manti was one of four finalists.

This, after Brian Te'o, citing all the financial evidence and professional advice Manti asked his parents to garner, had recommended his son go pro only hours earlier. This after his 19-year-old sister, BrieAnne, days before, told Manti in a phone call to follow his dream.

"She was at a bus stop after class heading home," Brian related, "and Manti called her and asked, 'What should I do?'

"She said, 'Wasn't it your dream to go to the NFL? Then go.' And that got Manti thinking.

"But when he got to Newport Beach this weekend, and he talked to my wife and I, he said, 'The NFL is my goal, not my dream. My dream is to have an impact on people. I think I'm doing that, and I'm not finished yet. All the trips to the pediatric hospital, to the Homeless Center. I'm not done yet."

At first, Brian and Manti's mom, Ottilia, were taken aback that any decision had been made, let alone one so profound. Brian likes to use the analogy of a bridge for decisions Manti makes in his life, and that Manti often would get stuck on the bridge.

"We started the stay/go conversation after the last game of the season, after Stanford," Brian said, "because we knew Manti was going to do what he usually does, and that's avoid the question.

"He said, 'Dad, I just can't think about it now.' And rightfully so.They had just lost a tough game and he was not in a good mood. But the day or two after the Stanford game, I told him, 'We're going to talk about this whether you want to or not.'

"I told him, your mom and I, by Dec. 1, are going to get bombarded by people who can now talk to us. They're going to come after us and come after you in terms of recruiting and agents and stuff like that, and we want to be able to know how to approach all of that.'"

The hope was to have a decision finalized about the time Notre Dame (8-4) played its Champs Sports Bowl game against 25th-ranked Florida State (8-4), Dec. 29 in Orlando, Fla. So this past weekend, Brian had figured, was going to be more about taking his son's temperature than pinning him down.

What Brian's and Ottilia's research had unearthed was that Manti was projected to go anywhere from the middle of the first round to early second round. What they were told that would translate into dollars was $6 million to $10 million for a first contract.

"We don't necessarily know that's true," Brian said, "nor can we fathom what that would look like."

All along, Manti stayed away from number-crunching and logic and turned to spiritual side, as he had done with both his college decision in '09 and his decision two Decembers ago to ultimately defer his two-year Mormon Mission until after football ends.

For three weeks, Manti prayed. For three weeks, what came to him were visions. And every one of them had something to do with an experience at Notre Dame.

The one that seemed to seal his sentiment, though, happened Friday night at Notre Dame's Football Awards Show at the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts.

Toward the end of the two-hour presentation, a video montage of sorts was played on a giant screen.

"Manti told me there was a really touching tribute to the seniors, and the parents kind of narrated over it about their sons," Brian said. "But the one that really got him emotional was seeing Steve Filer on crutches on Senior Day and his father narrating over that video clip. He was profoundly impacted by it."

Filer was a prep All-America linebacker who never found the success in college he was projected to by recruiting analysts, then had his senior season truncated by a knee injury in a non-contact drill in practice last month. He spent the balance of his career on crutches, including his emergence from the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel on Senior Day, Nov. 19.

"Manti said, 'Dad, I watched Steve Filer walk out on crutches on Senior Day and greet his dad. And I asked myself, "Can I live with that if something happened my senior year and I spent my last game on crutches?" And yes, I can live with that.'

"He said, 'Whether I run out of the tunnel in pads or walk out on crutches, I'll know that I finished the race. I want to be able to see you on the field, and I want to be able to hug you and say goodbye to Notre Dame.' "

By this time Brian and Ottilia didn't know whether to smile, cry or both.

"He has a way of making decisions that make us scratch our heads and that warm your heart all at the same time," Brian said. "It was no longer about wanting to be the team captain at Notre Dame or increasing his NFL stock. It wasn't about winning the awards. It was about something bigger and more powerful."

The plan was that Manti would return to campus on a red-eye flight Sunday night/Monday morning in time for an afternoon final exam a professor refused to move. After that, he would sit down with ND football sports information director Brian Hardin and figure out how to tell the world.

But the plan was quickly scrapped during an interview session at the Lott Trophy banquet. Boston College junior linebacker Luke Kuechly, the eventual winner, and Alabama junior linebacker Dont'a Hightower were both asked what their plans for 2012 were -- draft or a senior year in college? Both submitted non-committal answers.

"As they were talking, Manti looks over at me and smiles," Brian said. "And I'm thinking. "Brother man is going to spill the beans.'"

"Ultimately, I really want to experience my senior year at Notre Dame," Te'o would say Monday when he arrived back on campus. "The happiest moments so far in my life have come when I am spending time with people I love. I wanted to spend another year with my teammates and the coaches on our team. I don't think any sum of money can replace the memories I can create in my senior year."

It was such a contrast to seven weeks ago, when Irish coach Brian Kelly's post-USC game bad mood morphed into a sound bite he likely wished he could have swallowed instead of spewed.

Kelly essentially drew a line between his recruits and the Charlie Weis recruits he inherited from the previous regime, which infuriated the older players on the team, including Te'o. Before Kelly could mend the fissure, it had oozed onto Twitter and then made national headlines.

In the days that followed, Te'o asked the sports information staff to disconnect from the media for a while. He seemed overwhelmed and overwrought with the Notre Dame football experience. When he finally returned, he was asked about the freshman version of himself -- the one who was so teeming with hope and so eager to draw the bigger picture.

"I miss that guy," he said.

But not for long.

"Football is one part of me, but the main part of me is just who I am as a person," Manti said during his first interview with the media early in his freshman season. "Everybody will see what you do on the football field, but I think what matters most is who you are inside. My dad always told me, 'Don't necessarily be a man of success, but a man of worth.'"

Somewhere between Twittergate and Newport Beach, Te'o found that guy again.

"He didn't just come full circle," Brian Te'o said. "He matured. He's that guy and more. I saw my son go from a boy to a man this weekend."

Although Brian wasn't crazy about the idea of an apartment.

"Why would he leave a place where the electric bill is all paid," he started, "where he doesn't have to cook? See, he can make a knucklehead decision at times."

But Manti Te'o also reminded us Sunday night and Monday that maybe Notre Dame really still is Notre Dame, and not some idyllic place from the 1960s that doesn't fit into today's college football elite.

"This is not only a great day for the University of Notre Dame and our football team, it is also a great day for college football," Kelly said in a press release. "(Te'o) has been a leader of our team the last two years and he definitely makes our program, university and college football better. In my mind he is the best linebacker in the nation -- and he is an even better person away from the game."

And he's finally off the bridge, thanks to a leap of faith. This time, though, it wasn't blind. Manti Te'o knows exactly what he's getting into.

"One of the people we talked to laid it out as this analogy, that the NFL is like a train," Brian Te'o said. "And once it stops, you can either jump on or stay off. But regardless, it's going to leave the station and it may not come back.

"Manti wrestled with whether to jump on the NFL train this year and the prospect of 'What if it didn't come back?' Ultimately, he said, 'I could live with it, because what I'm doing now has meaning to people.'

"He's no longer talking about being a person of worth. He's living it. And he knows what it looks like. It's watching children smile. It's watching parents cry, because of the impact he had. It's incredible. He said, 'I don't know if I could go live in a mansion, knowing there was more that I could have done.'"

- Eric Hansen

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