The quote Manti Te’o chose for his Twitter biography more than a year ago seems prescient now. The words, taken from Alexander Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, acutely capture the last three weeks of the Irish linebacker’s life.
Manti Te'o points to the sky after making a play in Notre Dame's 13-6 over Michigan.
“Life is a storm my young friend,” it reads. “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.”
The sunlight and shattering rocks hit almost simultaneously for Te’o in September. Days before a 20-3 win over Michigan State, Notre Dame’s senior leader lost his grandmother and his girlfriend. The following week his girlfriend’s family closed her casket as he went through a final walkthrough prior to beating Michigan with another stand out defensive performance. He stayed to fulfill a promise he made to her months before when she told him he should honor her by playing well if anything happened to her during football season.
A Sports Illustrated cover story and national media attention added to a tumultuous couple of weeks. Te’o emerged from his storm this week as a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender and the feel-good story of the college football season thus far.
“We’re going to have our ups and downs,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “We’re going to have our good days and our bad days. For me, I’ve learned when that storm does come what foundation I have.”
Faith, family and football helped the senior through his tough stretch. He thanked the Notre Dame fans who supported him last Saturday night by filling the South Bend campus with Hawaiian leis as a sign of solidarity. This week he returned to his home state to be with family and gain some closure with his grandmother. He used the week away from football to fuel up on maybe a little bit too much home-cooking and to recharge for the rest of his final season in South Bend.
The hype will continue to build for Te’o and the rest of the Irish defense week by week if they continue to win. The team has never been able to push past four consecutive victories under Brian Kelly or with any of the players on their current roster.
“This is the most critical part of our season. You know, we have never been 4-0,” Te’o said. “So it's very crucial for us to really settle down. We are getting a lot of praise and getting a lot of pats on our back, and that's nice. That's always nice to feel that, that kind of support. But we have to really just avoid all that stuff.”
The outside world won’t make it easy for Te’o to avoid the buzz about his unlikely trip into Heisman contention. Most opposing coaches have given the linebacker a nod of approval for the award normally reserved for quarterbacks and running backs. Even Kelly, who has been just as emphatic about “avoiding the noise,” didn’t shy away from stumping for his best player.
“What is the definition of a Heisman Trophy candidate? If you go with he has to be a quarterback or an offensive player, well, I don't think he plays on offense,” Kelly said Tuesday. But if you're looking for one of the best, if not the best college football player that impacts your program … we think he fits those categories.”
Te’o said the attention he’s received for his 38 tackles and five turnovers so far this season has been surreal and humbling. For a guy who used to create himself as a running back in video games so he could have a shot to with a virtual Heisman, winning the real deal as a defender is hard to fathom.
He said the key to staying in the running is continuing to win games.
“To be honest with you, if I keep winning and I don’t win the Heisman, I'll be so happy,” he said. “I just want to win, just to be honest with you. And if my play during those games winning helps me win the Heisman, so be it, but I just want to win.”