Manti Te’o has every right to be a little selfish heading into his final season at Notre Dame. He’s unapologetic about wanting Fighting Irish football fans to feel the same about him as he does about the University he’s called home far away from home.
“A successful year for me would be when I run out of that tunnel for the last time and people are crying,” the decorated linebacker said. “That'll show me I made an impact on lives here. When I see that happening — when I see people standing and crying — that's when I'll know I had a successful year.”
At the top of the Hawiian’s priority list, however, is pushing the dormant program back into the BCS mix. Te’o gave up millions of NFL dollars to return to Notre Dame for his senior season. Call it the Mormon mission he never took. And like any senior hearing the second hand tick away as time dwindles, Te’o, whose legacy as one of Notre Dame’s best defenders in school history is already set in rebar-enforced concrete, is mostly focused on making good on the promises he made when he surprisingly chose the Irish over programs that might have provided a more leisurely path to a national championship.
“As a whole collective unit [the goal] is to make it to the BCS,” he said. “When that happens, that’s going to be an example of a successful year.”
Te’o has 324 career tackles heading into the 2012 campaign, just 74 stops behind former linebacker Steve Heimkreiter (1975-78), who is third on the all-time list with 398. Ahead of him are Bob Crable (521) and Bob Golic (479). With appearances in all 38 games (36 starts), Te’o is equally fixed on making an even bigger impact this fall as well as soaking it all in.
“This is going to sound crazy, but I live off campus and I kind of want to move back on campus — just to experience Notre Dame,” he said. “Obviously I’m not going to move back on campus because I love my big bed; I love my [air conditioning]. But I’m going to be on campus a lot.”
A reminder of how close the experience is to completion, Te’o recalled watching his underclassmen teammates haul television sets and furniture into their residence halls.
“It really made me feel old,” he said. “I’m really going to miss it.”
As much as fall camp has flooded Te’o with sentiment, he’s mostly looking forward. For a guy who throws his body around like a demolition derby jalopy, he’s always treated it like a trailer queen show car. Te’o, who has dropped 15 pounds since last season and weighs in at 240, took maintenance to an even higher level of obsessive compulsiveness during his brief summer vacation back home in Hawaii.
His father, Brian, a master of meats, and his mother, a dessert virtuoso, realized immediately their son would treat his visit like a business trip. Te’o still sampled the prime rib, but swore off sweets. He still consumed rice, a staple of Polynesian cuisine, but did so with restraint. He torched calories in the Hawaiian heat before his family was out of bed each morning.
The consensus preseason All-American logged miles on the Kahuku Stretch, a path that meanders through mountainous ranch land on one side and pristine coastline on the left. He sprinted up hills and attacked staircases before wearing out jump ropes. He never rested.
“On July 4, we went to a family reunion,” he said. “The family reunion was in Utah. Right when I got to Utah, I was like, ‘I need to work out. I need to go.’ I ran to a Gold’s Gym. I just needed to workout; that was my whole mentality.”
Head Coach Brian Kelly said he has never felt more comfortable with team leadership than he has going into Year Three. Te’o is clear example of the trust the coaching staff has in its veterans.
“It’s just a mature group of guys,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of leadership in this group; they’re helping the younger guys out there. It’s just a different feel going out to practice. There’s a lot of trust out there on both sides — coaches and players — and you can sense that and feel that.
“I think he’s just more comfortable in his ability to step out front. He doesn’t feel like he’s preaching to somebody. He just feels comfortable. Hey, this is the way we do it. I’ve been here three years; we’ve done it the same way every day. I think there’s just a comfort level with the staff, myself, Coach [Bob] Diaco and everybody that’s involved in the program. I think it allows the players to feel like they can step up out front and be a leader and not have a mixed message. I think it happens with time, and that’s what we’re seeing with Manti three years into the program.”