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Notre Dame’s Te’o honors grandmother, girlfriend with big effort vs. Michigan State

“[Football] is greescape. But I’ll be honest: Throughout game you still think about it.” — Manti Te’o Notre Dame linebacker

“[Football] is a great escape. But I’ll be honest: Throughout the game, you still think about it.” — Manti Te’o, Notre Dame linebacker, on thinking about the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend during the game Saturday against Michigan State

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Updated: October 18, 2012 6:16AM

EAST LANSING, Mich. — There were times — even in the heat of a brutally physical, nationally televised game Saturday between two ranked teams — that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s thoughts drifted to his grandmother and his girlfriend, both of whom died last week in the kind of devastating blow nobody can be expected to handle, let alone a college kid.

‘‘[Football] is a great escape,’’ Te’o said in the wake of the Irish’s 20-3 victory against Michigan State. ‘‘But I’ll be honest: Throughout the game, you still think about it. But football allows me to just be in a realm, in a little world where I can just honor them by the way I play.’’

That’s why, after intercepting a pass late in the game to cap a virtuoso performance, Te’o pointed to the sky, then disappeared into the mob of teammates — no, family members — awaiting him on the sideline.

‘‘It was hard, you know?’’ Te’o said. ‘‘I lost two women that I truly love. But I had my family around me. I had my football family around me. I had my girlfriend’s family around me. And . . . family is forever. I’m going to see them again, and it’s going to be a very happy day when I do.’’

Te’o finished with 12 tackles — his 20th career double-digit game — and moved up to sixth on Notre Dame’s all-time list.

‘‘He just played his heart out,’’ said tailback Cierre Wood, one of Te’o’s close friends.

Te’o’s play seemed to inspire his teammates, too. The Spartans’ three points were the fewest the Irish had allowed against a Top 10
opponent since a 51-0 victory against USC in 1966.

‘‘All those kids in there were pulling for Manti,’’ coach Brian Kelly said. ‘‘And Manti raised his level, too.

Kelly said there’s nobody like Te’o. Not that he has coached, at least.

‘‘He’s so strong for everybody,’’ Kelly said.

The Notre Dame fans in attendance chanted Te’o’s name late in the game. He said even the Michigan State fans showed him love.

‘‘It goes to show that people understand that football is just a game,’’ Te’o said. ‘‘It’s a game we play, and we have fun doing it. But . . . what matters is the people around you and family.’’

Te’o said he doesn’t know if he’ll head home to Hawaii during the Irish’s week off next week. But he knows he’ll be in South Bend for the game Saturday against Michigan.

‘‘I’m going to be here,” he said. ‘‘I know they’re still watching.’’

The celebration of Notre Dame’s victory was tempered, however, by the loss of starting strong safety Jamoris Slaughter for the season after he tore his left Achilles tendon on the first snap of the second half. Slaughter, a fifth-year senior, is the second starting defensive back the Irish have lost to an Achilles injury, joining cornerback Lo Wood.

Redshirt freshman Matthias Farley, who has played well in the early going, will replace Slaughter. That gives Notre Dame three first-year starters in the secondary, and all of them — cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell and Farley — are converted offensive players.

‘‘Those are things that coaches have to deal with all over the country,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘We’re seeing the development of some really young players that can be really good players for us. We don’t have to hide those guys.’’

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