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The story of MANti Te'o




Photo: The Sporting News


The University of Notre Dame has produced legends on the gridiron. Players that generations of families would consider household names. Knute Rockne, George Gipp, Johnny Lujack, Tony Rice, Raghib Ismail, Tim Brown, and of course Rudy. Players come to Notre Dame to become legends. But for the critics of Notre Dame, for which there are many, there is quite a noticeable trend for all those names listed: all of those players played before the year 2000. The sport world has created a narrative that the Irish have not been relevant since the turn of the century; and further argued that Notre Dame had not produced a player of legend caliber since the start of the new millennium.


That narrative looked to have run its course in the spring of 2009. There was an excitement that was starting to build around the University. Yes, the team was coming over a less than stellar year, despite going 7-6, under Charlie Wiess and losing to USC rather handily (38-8); but the new year was starting out right. The Irish had capped the season off with a bowl win. Granted it was against Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl, but it was a great feeling for the Irish players and their fans, especially since bowl season had been riddled with disastrous endings. Maybe it was a touch of foreshadowing that brought Notre Dame to Hawaii that December, for only a few short months later the Irish got their first win of the 2009 football season on Signing Day when Hawaiian linebacker recruit Manti Te'o committed to Notre Dame over USC and UCLA. Manti Te'o was generational talent. He could’ve gone to any school and rewrote their record books, but South Bend is where he decided to take his talents.


Manti Te'o's presence was felt on and off the field. After posting one 6-6 season and two 8-5 seasons Manti was faced with the tough decision of turning pro a year early; forgoing his final season and quite possibly be selected early in the first round of the NFL draft; or stay for one more season and put all that in jeopardy. Te'o had posted back-to-back one hundred plus tackle season, had disrupted the backfield with numerous tackles for loss and sacks. He was playing at the elite level Irish fans had hoped for when he committed three years prior. The team was improving but had not quite put all the pieces together. But Te'o made the decision to give it one more year, to finish the job he came to Notre Dame to accomplish. To be THE Manti Te'o that turned Fighting Irish football into a powerhouse.


College football in the year of 2012 was wild one for fans across the nation. The preseason favorite, USC (Southern California), would go on to on to be unranked in the final AP polls of the season. The other USC (South Carolina) would vault as high as number three in the nation, to only subsequently topple as well. For Irish fans it was a return to former days of glory. The season opened with the 50-10 dismantling of the Navy Midshipmen in the land of the Blarney Stone. The season was surely destined to be the one that placed Notre Dame back on the top of college football. But a darkness settled over the Fighting Irish early in their season. Their leader, their caption, their rock, Manti, lost two of the most important figures in his life, within twenty-four hours of each other. His grandmother and his girlfriend. Manti was distraught, but instead of taking time away from the game to leave such losses he came out onto the field with a fire that had not been seen in the young man before. He tore through the season posting over a hundred tackles and seven interceptions. He was not just playing thru his pain his was playing for those behind the pain. He played for his girlfriend Lennay Kekua and grandmother. He was inspired by their love and fought with all his prowess to make them proud. He fought to carry his team, as their leader, to pinnacle of college football, the BCS National championship game.


Before he was able to lay it all out on the field one last time in the Blue and Gold his whole world erupted again. Manti received a call from the person he believed was dead. Lennay told him she was still alive. The psychological disruption that this news had on Manti will never be able to be expressed. Until this past week.


While the sports world has long speculated over areas of the drama that surrounded the breaking news. Did Manti know all along that his girlfriend was alive? Was this really an early example of "catfishing"? Had he played up the story of his girlfriend and grandmother passing in order to gain national attention and create a push for a change to win the Heisman? How could a college football star be duped for so long and never meet the girl he was so connected to? The rumors swirled, the jokes were made, and memes were circulated.


An abysmal showing by the entire Notre Dame team in the Championship only added more fuel to the fire. Manti missed tackles he would always make; read plays wrong that he had been seeing since high school. He was a shell of the player that had commanded the field so dominantly that fall. Talk of his draft stock falling circled Teo.


Would he ever be able to play at that commanding level again? What players would look up to someone who had been conned for so long? Manti Te'o was billed his whole career as a general on the field, a leader, one who commanded the respect of his peers and his opponents. Many teams, sports casters and pundits feared that those days were gone.

The first round of the NFL Draft came and went without Te'o’s name being called. But he did not have to wait around too long the next day before being drafted by the San Diego Chargers. He would be playing in the same state his supposed girlfriend had lived in. The first years in the NFL Manti looked uncomfortable, out of sorts, lost in coverage, much like the BCS Championship game. Many thought the end of his playing days was near. Would the golden boy of Notre Dame turn out to be a wash in the NFL?


But Manti's story was not over. With the release of the documentary series on Netflix Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist Manti was finally able to open about his reactions and feelings on the whole situation. The struggles that he went through were unimaginable. The media had turn him and his life apart. Many would not have been able to carry on. But Manti Te'o is not just anyone. He was able to take the very important step of working with a therapist. This was not an insignificant moment in his journey. As stated on the documentary Manti began working on not only forgiving those involved in the situation that destroyed his world, but he also working on forgiving himself. In an era where mental health for athletes has been scrutinized and debated, especially for male athletes, Manti came forward and told his story. He embraced the tribulations that that had been sent his way. Manti the precede to play some of his best football in the NFL for the New Orleans Saints.


But his journey was not just about being great at football again. Towards the end of the documentary Manti stated “I knew that in order for me to continue to be the man who I wanted to be, forgiveness was something that I had to exercise, no matter how hard it was at that time. And I started to realize the power of forgiveness.”


Even though Manti had every right to be angry and bitter for how his life had been altered; he chose the path of forgiveness and healing. Manti has become a legend in his own right, a new Irish legend for modern times. A man who was strong enough to forgive, because he knows it is only the weak that hold on to revenge and anger.


“If there is anything I wanted from this thing, it was to give some of us hope who needed it, to tell those who needed some love that they're loved, and to help them to forgive, to forgive others and most importantly to forgive themselves.” – Manti Te'o

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