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Grieving Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o inspires teammates, fosters togetherness

Manti Te'o KeiVarae Russell

Manti Te'o, KeiVarae Russell

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Updated: November 5, 2012 11:47AM

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The sunlight touched Lennay Kekua’s face for the last time at noon eastern time two Saturdays ago.

At that moment, as her casket was closed, Manti Te’o was thousands of miles away, going through a mundane walkthrough at Notre Dame Stadium, seven-plus hours before the Michigan game kicked off.

The star linebacker — still reeling from the unimaginable one-two punch of losing his grandmother and his girlfriend in a matter of hours a little more than a week earlier — turned to defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and asked what time it was.

“12:01,” Diaco said.

“I had a moment then,” Te’o ­recalled.

In that moment, he thought about his teammates who rallied to his side. His classmates who offered their support. The countless, faceless fans who offered prayers online. His family, back home in Hawaii, so far yet so close. And he thought about Lennay, his girlfriend, her long battle with leukemia, and her wish for him to honor her memory by playing through the pain.

All that — his family, his friends, his faith and his football — turned what could’ve been Te’o’s weakest moment into quite the opposite.

“I’ve never felt so strong,” he said.

That strength carried Te’o to one of his finest games in an Irish uniform. He made eight tackles and picked off Denard Robinson twice in Notre Dame’s 13-6 victory, inspiring his teammates to not allow a touchdown for the second straight week with his stirring play in the wake of unthinkable grief.

And when it was all over, as the Irish celebrated under the lights, Te’o looked up and saw thousands of fans wearing leis, many of them tossing them in his direction. One last show of support. One last sign that he made the right choices, picking Notre Dame over USC, picking his senior year over NFL millions.

“I can’t describe how I was feeling,” Te’o said. “I felt a sense of peace knowing that so many people cared about Manti, instead of No. 5. … That was possibly the greatest experience that I’ve had so far here at Notre Dame.”

Te’o, back from Hawaii after burying his grandmother during the off week and getting closure on the toughest stretch of his life, spoke at length Wednesday about Saturday’s game against Miami at Soldier Field, his appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated and his sudden insertion into the ­Heisman Trophy discussion.

It was just another news conference.

It felt more like a sermon, the ­podium his pulpit.

Not only because of the frequent mentions of his faith — “When life gets hard walking, try walking on your knees,” he said — but because of the profundity, purpose and perspective with which he speaks. His words come in calm, measured tones but have a heft that belies his 21 years.

It’s little wonder his teammates, young and old, speak of him with reverence and give him much of the credit for the heightened sense of closeness this team feels.

“I should go play for my brothers on every play because he decided to stay for this game,” Louis Nix III said. “He had all this going on back home, and he didn’t go back home for like two weeks. He thought about me, so I want to think about him and every other person on this team when I go out on that field.”

Teo’s on-field performance only augments his stature in the locker room. Already one of the top defenders in the nation, Te’o has three interceptions and a fumble recovery in four games, this after going his first three seasons without a turnover. He has been a national defensive player of the week, and he’s gaining traction as a viable Heisman candidate.

In typical Te’o fashion, he’s ­humbled by the praise.

“It’s kind of surreal that I’m on that list,” he said. “I used to make myself a running back on video games and win the Heisman as a fictional character.”

Te’o has proved he’s very much the real deal, even if he seems too good to be true, on and off the field.

With an untested — and, let’s face it, untrusted — redshirt freshman at quarterback leading a sputtering offense, this Notre Dame team will go as far as its elite defense can take it. And the defense will go as far as Te’o can lead it. As the SI cover put it for the nation to see, it’s on Te’o’s shoulders — more than anyone else’s — to restore the long-lost luster to the Golden Dome.

It’s a heavy burden, but one that perhaps no student-athlete in the country is more prepared — physically, mentally, emotionally — to carry.

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