Roots in Mormon church and Hawaii family keep Notre Dame's Manti Te'o grounded

Aug 21 2010 - 8:35pm

MISHAWAKA, Ind. -- Outside the chapel walls on the first Sunday of August, there is little more than sunlight and a tinny thrum of cicadas.

A moderate crowd filters into the parking lots and then through the doors for the 9 a.m. service at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They're quiet and happy. Nothing breaks the tranquility except the occasional interjection of a car door snapping shut.

Opening prayers are almost under way when a black SUV appears on the road. Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's linchpin inside linebacker, is a bit late. But he had to borrow the ride from one teammate and pick up another. Once arrived, wearing a rust-colored shirt and tie, Te'o walks inside like he does most Sundays, to reconnect with a place more than 4,000 miles away.

As church members prepare a celebrant of water and wine, Te'o leans over and says: "You came on a perfect day."

It's Fast Sunday. Church members skip two meals, then donate the money they would have spent on the meals to help the needy. Instead of sermons, the service is open for anyone to volunteer testimony about his or her religious experiences.

During the course of an hour, people talk about lost earrings, health breakthroughs and 95-year-old mothers who play with water balloons. It's about 9:50 a.m. when, from the back of the small, bright chapel, a 250-pound cannonball from Laie, Hawaii, walks toward the podium.

And for the next five minutes or so, a crowd listens reverently as Te'o tells them why he feels at home.

Long way from home

If there is a defensive renaissance at Notre Dame this fall, a Mormon kid from paradise will lead it. It still seems inherently bizarre that Te'o could choose to spend three or four years in northwest Indiana, at a profoundly Catholic institution. After all, on his first visit to campus, it was so bitterly cold that he retreated indoors in the middle of a game.

How he settled on snowballs over sunscreen and whitecaps still amazes even Te'o, but it has become easier to manage the longing. It pained him to miss his sister's graduation to return for summer school, as he'd fallen again for the idyllic life during the semester break.

But when that satisfaction swelled in him, he felt another tug: It was time to go.

"Actually now, I really have to think: 'Oh, I'm not in Hawaii,"' Te'o says. "Of course, when I go down the street, I know I'm not in Hawaii when I don't see mountains or the ocean.

"Slowly but surely, I had to literally tell myself: This is my reality. This is my life. This is how it's going to be. So I best just accept it instead of fighting it. Instead of fighting it and saying, 'No, this is never going to be home' -- just make it home."

Comfort has meant translating everything but the weather to South Bend. Notre Dame consciously billed itself as a "spiritual" institution during recruiting and like all other schools introduced him to LDS church representatives on his visit.

Te'o wondered if he'd see any Polynesians in four years; on his first visit, he saw two working the desk at the Varsity Club hotel. A local Tongan family, the Moalas, has embraced Te'o, who calls the patriarch of the house "Uncle Pule."

Te'o considers it part of his mission to oblige students or teammates who ask about his faith, or appear in need of counsel, and to bring teammates to church with him -- all reasons he does not plan for a traditional Mormon mission interrupting his college career.

"This school, even though it's a Catholic church school, it's created that environment for us to still grow spiritually and still believe the things we do," Te'o says.

This ease is clear now. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco even suggests the place and people now adjust to Te'o, saying, "He's got that much charisma."

"At first, he was really shy about everything, didn't really talk to too many people," linebacker Darius Fleming said. "But then he just opened up. You can tell when it was the real Manti."

'In the middle of everything'

In Hawaii, a graduation party is not just a graduation party. It is a traditional luau, an hours-long celebration preceded by 24-hour preparation shifts. Te'o's sister, BrieAnne, wanted her luau this summer scaled down. Only about 500 people attended.

Uncle Keala set out his pupus. Then there were the main courses: rice, kalua pig, Lomi salmon. Then there was cousin Tomasina's dessert section: brownies, cookies, cakes, pies.

Te'o was the line captain, making sure hot courses stayed hot, making sure serving plates stayed full. It had all the centrifugal force of running a defense from the inside out.

"I like feeling like I'm in the middle of everything," Te'o says. "Not to say that I am. But I like the feeling that I'm the captain, that I'm in control."

Te'o made 63 tackles in his first year, the third-most by an Irish freshman. No one caught new coach Brian Kelly's eye more in the winter and spring. Diaco says Te'o is "built perfectly" for the middle of the defense.

Yet the staff concedes nothing.

"If you watch the games and you listen to the people that were affiliated with his teaching before, he was a real liability," Diaco says. "He wasn't a dynamic, productive player. He's still not. He's a long way from being ready.

"To say how soon did I know there was a special player there -- I'm not sure he is a special player. He's a special person. I'm hopeful he's a special player."

It is another assimilation: Humbling himself to reprove what he thought he'd proved.

Te'o freely admits it: He would not have chosen Notre Dame had Charlie Weis not been the coach. He calls Weis "a great man." And that touchstone disintegrated last December.

But Te'o felt compelled to remain.

"I just felt it was my chance to take control," Te'o says. "My chance to really establish that sense that I am somebody to count on, not only to my coaches, but especially to my teammates.

"This whole change was a clean slate for me. I had my mistakes last year and I was blessed to have the opportunity to kind of come in on a freshman year again. But I have that one year of experience under my belt, to not make the same mistakes I did last year."

Eye-opening experience

He felt compelled, ultimately, because of what happened during English class on Feb. 3, 2009, one day before he set a course for the next four years. After returning from a recruiting visit at USC the previous weekend, hypnotized by the Hollywood glamour, Te'o decided. He was going to be a Trojan.

His parents advised him to pray on it, just to be sure. So while he and his classmates screened the movie "Dead Poets Society" the day before signing day, Te'o closed his eyes.

There is a scripture from Corinthians that, roughly translated, says the truth will be made known out of the mouths of two or three witnesses. And when Te'o opened his eyes, he saw a voice mail from his father -- who preferred his son attend Notre Dame -- alerting him to an e-mail from then-Irish assistant Brian Polian.

After Te'o finished listening to the voice mail, a note arrived for his teacher. Te'o was called to the athletic office, where a coach wanted to talk about why Notre Dame was the best fit for him. Instantly, with that second sign, Te'o was South Bend-bound.

"I knew it was going to take an act of God to change his mind," Brian Te'o, Manti's father, says. "And lo and behold."

Te'o would make it official the next morning at a signing day event for Hawaiian players. But on the way there, Pete Carroll called. For the entire 75-minute drive, and for another 30 minutes upon arrival, the then-USC coach put on the hard sell. All Te'o said was he was sorry, he understood, but he had made his choice.

The coach he came to Notre Dame for is gone. But Te'o sees Kelly's energy and remembers how the Irish coach said, "What's up, brah?" the first time they met. He sees how the enthusiastic Diaco is rebuilding him after gruff former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta broke him down, how the new scheme is a perfect fit.

And then Te'o looks westward, to Los Angeles, to a program roiled by NCAA sanctions. And he thinks about the moment he closed his eyes in class while a decades-old movie played.

"I look back at it now, especially with what's going on at USC, and I'm just like, 'Thank you!' " Te'o says, looking up, laughing and pointing toward the sky.

Words of wisdom

"Brothers and sisters, good morning," Te'o says, gripping the podium. "I'd like to talk about the influence of friends."

Earlier in the Fast Sunday service, would-be Irish freshman safety Chris Badger spoke about receiving his mission call to Ecuador the previous week. After that, with Fleming finally in attendance after Te'o's repeated invitations, Te'o is moved to speak.

"He's one of the brothers I didn't know I'd meet, and I met here," Te'o says of Fleming, a St. Rita alumnus.

Te'o talks about being with Badger when he received his mission call, and how he captured Badger's incredulousness about Ecuador on his iPhone, and how no one knew where Ecuador was, so they decided to Google it.

Then, earnestly, Te'o says Badger has been a missionary for him even in the freshman's two-month stint on campus. The spontaneous outpouring of feeling before fellow churchgoers might seem quirky. But it's clear that Te'o is reconciling two lives in this moment, bringing here and there together.

"You're constantly surrounded by different things of the world, and sometimes you get distracted by the love of the game of football and fame and popularity," Te'o tells the congregation.

"But it's always nice to come back to church and see all of you and be filled with the spirit. It reboots me and brings me back to the teachings my parents taught me."

He relates one of those lessons, something his father imparted not long ago. Te'o wasn't sure if he was doing missionary work well enough at Notre Dame. Brian Te'o said this: Son, you're not the one who will do the converting. The spirit will.

At the end, everyone in the church says amen.

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