SOUTH BEND – Manti Te’o is a man of his word.
So when the Notre Dame linebacker suffered two personal tragedies in a six-hour span on Sept. 12, he kept his promise and kept playing.
Te’o performed like the Heisman Trophy candidate he has become in wins over Michigan State and Michigan after the death of his grandmother and girlfriend three days before the No. 9 Irish (4-0) defeated then-No. 10 Michigan State on Sept. 15.
He played because he promised his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who was battling leukemia, he would.
One day she made me promise; she was like, Babe, if anything happens to me, you promise that you’ll still stay over there and that you’ll play and you’ll honor me through the way you play,’ Te’o, who went home to Laie, Hawaii, during last week’s bye week, said Wednesday.
Te’o more than honored his girlfriend and grandmother with his performances in the games after their deaths, and he will continue to honor them when the Irish play Miami (4-1) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago.
The 6-foot-2, 255-pound senior had a team-high 12 tackles, broke up two passes and recovered a fumble in a 20-3 win over the Spartans. He followed that with eight tackles and two interceptions – and he helped force two more interceptions – in a 13-6 win over Michigan on Sept. 22.
The performance against Michigan landed Te’o on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was done in front of thousands of fans wearing leis to show their support for the Irish star.
I can’t describe how I was feeling, Te’o said of the Michigan game, which was on the same day as his girlfriend’s funeral. I felt a sense of peace knowing that so many people cared about Manti, instead of No. 5.
I had that feeling that I know people are starting to understand what life is truly about. Football is just a game, and then there’s the game of life, and people are starting to realize that. I’m just happy that I was able to be a part of that and experience that on Saturday and see all that support for myself and my family and those who have lost loved ones.
Te’o’s teammates learned how much he loves them when he decided to remain with the team after his personal losses, and they couldn’t love him more for doing that.
That was big time, two people in like a week, that is heartbreaking, and he decided to stay with us, defensive end Louis Nix said. That says a lot about his character, and it tells a lot about our team and how we feel about each other. That helps me just say, I should go out here and play for my brother every play.’
Te’o’s 38 tackles, three interceptions, three quarterback hurries and two fumble recoveries are a strong start for a Heisman campaign that the linebacker calls surreal.
I used to make myself as a running back on video games and win the Heisman as a fictional character; but to actually be a candidate for that in real life is a real surprise for me, Te’o said. All that does for me is it shows me that I’m heading in the right direction.
And for Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco there is only one direction for voters to go with their Heisman ballots: straight to Te’o.
I would say that Manti is the finest football player in America, all positions, all teams, Diaco said.