Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o always has been special
BY MARK LAZERUS firstname.lastname@example.org December 2, 2012 8:18PM
2008 October 17 SPT - Punahou's Manti Teo barrels into the endzone for a touchdown during first-half action of an ILH football game between Punahou and Iolani, Friday, Oct. 17, 2008 at Punahou School. Honolulu Star-Bulletin Photo by Jamm Aquino.
Updated: December 3, 2012 6:59PM
Kale Ane was milling about Los Angeles International Airport with his son, killing time between legs of his journey from Honolulu to Midway for the USC-Notre Dame game last season in South Bend, Ind.
Ane’s son was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the word ‘‘Punahou,’’ not exactly a name etched in the consciousness of most people on the U.S. mainland. But someone at the airport walked up to the two Ane men, pointed at the shirt and giddily exclaimed: ‘‘Hey, that’s Manti’s school!’’
‘‘I thought he might say
Obama’s school,’’ Ane said with a laugh, referring to another Punahou School alumnus, one that’s only slightly more famous right now than Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o.
This was last fall, long before Te’o became a household name. Long before the Irish defense, led by Te’o, muscled the program back on to the national stage. Long before Notre Dame shrugged off a couple of decades of mediocrity and earned a spot in the BCS championship game on Jan. 7 in Miami.
Now, Te’o might be the most beloved alumnus in Punahou’s history. He might be bigger than the president.
‘‘Should be an easy call, but it’s not,’’ said Ane, the football coach at the elite Honolulu prep school. ‘‘I think it’s a toss-up right now. That’s crazy to say, but it’s true. Both have done remarkable things.’’
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A man. That’s how Ane describes Te’o. A man among boys in Hawaii, ‘‘The Man’’ in South Bend and perhaps the Heisman in New York.
Trace Te’o’s footsteps back to Hawaii. The same footsteps that brought the most prized defensive recruit in the country (in his shorts) to snowy South Bend as a high school junior and led him to stun his family and friends by choosing Notre Dame over USC. The same footsteps that eventually led to the goal-line stand against Stanford, to his interception in the victory at USC that locked up the Irish’s spot in the BCS title game, to maybe — just maybe — the podium Saturday night in New York, where he likely will be a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
Trace those steps back to Hawaii, all the way back to his childhood. And, well, not much has changed. Te’o always was a little larger than life.
‘‘In kindergarten, he stood head and shoulders above his classmates,’’ said Brian Te’o, Manti’s father. ‘‘That’s what it was like all the way through.’’
As a sixth-grade Pop Warner football player, Te’o already was 5-10 and 160 pounds and was manhandling eighth-graders. By seventh grade, he already was the best player on a field loaded with high school freshmen.
‘‘He could have started for us on varsity as a seventh-grader,’’ Ane said. ‘‘He just had a way about him. He walked with his head up, his chest out and no fear. You could just tell by the way he walked he was different.’’
Freshmen can’t play varsity ball in Hawaii, though, and Ane’s hopes were crushed when Te’o went back to his public school in Kahuku to play junior varsity as a ninth-grader. The two-hour round-trip commute from the northern tip of Oahu to the southeast corner was too much to bear.
But Te’o came back to Punahou as a sophomore.
‘‘I was going to be the smart coach again,’’ Ane said.
This is the part of the story where the star player takes his lumps. Struggles with bigger, faster, stronger competition. Contemplates quitting. Fights through it and becomes stronger and tougher in the long run. You’ve heard it before.
Not Te’o. He was a beast from the outset.
When he was a sophomore, the top-ranked team in the state ran every play away from Te’o, building its entire game plan around avoiding the 15-year-old in the middle. A frustrated Te’o spent the entire game taunting the offense, demanding it run the ball in his direction, daring it to try. It never did.
‘‘We were getting beat, but all us coaches were having a great time watching him yell at the other team,’’ Ane said. ‘‘That was fun.’’
For three years, opponents hid from Te’o. For three years, he found them anyway.
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Obedient. That’s the word Brian Te’o uses to describe his son. Coachable is another way of putting it. He always knows his role, always does what he’s told.
Well, almost always.
‘‘We had a rule: no girlfriends,’’ Brian Te’o said. ‘‘They’re a distraction. He went ahead and got him one. I told him, if you feel you can balance home, school, athletics, scouting and a girlfriend, be my guest. And he couldn’t.’’
Indeed, becoming an Eagle Scout was just as important to Te’o as becoming a football star was. Until he turned 15, discovered girls and put football first, that is.
To become an Eagle Scout, a Boy Scout must complete his final community-service project before his 18th birthday. And when Te’o’s senior season rolled around, he hadn’t done a thing since he was 15.
On the first day of fall camp, Te’o’s dad — a Punahou assistant — was getting ready for practice. So was Te’o. His dad asked Te’o if he was finished with his Eagle Scout project. Te’o shrugged and said no. Good luck, his dad told him.
‘‘I got in the truck and left him there,’’ Brian Te’o said. ‘‘For an entire week.’’
Te’o got the message. By the end of the week, he had concocted a plan to build a concrete bike rack at a nearby school. He had lined up help from a dozen people, had obtained all the necessary supplies. And after two grueling eight-hour days, the project was complete. Te’o was an Eagle Scout. And, once again, he was a football player. Lesson learned.
‘‘Once he sets his mind to something, it’s done,’’ Brian Te’o said.
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Mature. That’s the description most commonly associated with Te’o these days. Those days, too.
Despite missing that first week of practice, Te’o registered 129 tackles, 11 sacks, three fumble recoveries and three interceptions as a senior, leading Punahou to its only state championship.
He instantly became a local media darling. And, just like on the field, there was no learning curve. He lit up the cameras, spouting off all the clichés his father had fed him. He acknowledged his teammates, he took it one game at a time, he thanked the reporters.
‘‘He was a natural,’’ Ane said.
Always composed. Always prepared. Always mature beyond his years.
It’s how he handled the flock of college coaches flying into Hawaii for two years. It’s how he handled the difficult phone call to USC coach Pete Carroll on signing day. It’s how he handled the daily media crush at Notre Dame for four years. And it’s how he handled the tragedy of his grandmother and girlfriend dying within hours of each other this season — and a national media that couldn’t get enough of his heroic tale.
‘‘It’s definitely overwhelming at times,’’ Te’o said. ‘‘But I understand it comes with the territory. I try to represent this school and represent my family the best way I can every time I step in front of the camera. No matter how overwhelming it gets, what I say can and does have a direct impact on someone’s life.’’
Te’o spoke last week about how he hopes his example spurs other Hawaiian kids to leave the comfortable ‘‘bubble’’ the islands provide, to chase their own dreams on the mainland. Yet everything he does and says reflects those days in Hawaii. He credits his Samoan background for his poise and models his soft-spoken leadership after his dad.
‘‘The apple don’t fall too far from the tree,’’ Brian Te’o said. ‘‘Excuse me, the mango.’’
Te’o is more dominant than ever on the field. More comfortable than ever in the spotlight. More at home than ever as a Mormon from Hawaii at a Catholic school in Indiana, embraced and beloved like perhaps no student before him. Still wise beyond his years, his words heavy, thoughtful and profound, carrying the same weight in the defensive huddle that they do on a national broadcast.
From a towering kindergartner to a towering figure in the college-football landscape — larger than life. And, yes, back home, where the journey from Hawaii to South Bend to New York to the NFL all began, he’s as big as they come.
‘‘Sorry, Mr. President,’’ Ane said, laughing.