By David Wharton Los Angeles Times
SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Amid the fury of the game, the roaring crowd and thudding hits, the clatter of shoulder pads, Manti Te’o searches for a quiet moment.
Stepping away from his teammates, he closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, says a quick prayer.
It’s just football, he whispers.
If only that were true.
As an inside linebacker at Notre Dame – and the emotional core of his team – Te’o is having the kind of season that players dream about, dominating opponents while lifting the Irish to No. 1 in the Bowl Championship Series standings. But football is only part of the story.
For all his success, he has endured well-publicized heartache. There have been personal tragedies and the expectations that come with ranking among the best defensive players in the land.
This young man from Hawaii, who would just as soon be hanging out with friends and going to church, doesn’t particularly like hearing his name in the Heisman Trophy conversation.
“I don’t like all the noise,” he said. “I don’t like the spotlight.”
As the Irish prepare to face USC in their traditional rivalry game Saturday, it seems the past few months have asked much of Te’o, certainly more than just running, hitting and tackling.
“When you go through a lot, whether it be on the field or in life, you need to step back,” he said. “You need to understand what is important.”
The bad news came in bunches. The day after Te’o turned 21 last January, his grandfather passed away. A few months later, a cousin died at birth.
Then, in September, his grandmother and his girlfriend – who was battling leukemia – died one after the other.
Hailing from a large, close-knit family, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound athlete found himself dealing with something he could not outrace or bull his way through.
“Young people have this tendency to feel they are invincible,” his father, Brian, said. “Manti had to learn from the experience and find strength around him.”
Family and friends provided support. So did the Mormon church. And football.
“The game has always been his outlet,” said Robby Toma, a high school teammate who followed him to Notre Dame. “It’s just a way for him to set aside his emotions and go out and do what he loves.”
Te’o played through the tough times, never missing a practice. He took the field against Michigan on the day his girlfriend was laid to rest.
Notre Dame fans showed up wearing leis in support of their star player that night. He responded with eight tackles and two interceptions in a 13-6 win.
“Your mind is not on anything else when you’re playing,” he said. “I try not to let anything cross over to the field.”
But as the season progressed, that sort of tunnel vision became more difficult. Football became less of a refuge.
The next few weeks will be busy. Once Notre Dame finishes with USC and the regular season, Te’o will hit the road with his coach, Brian Kelly, who said: “We’ve got a lot of banquets and awards shows to be at.”
The Butkus, Lombardi and Maxwell awards have Te’o on their list of finalists. Few expect a defensive player to win the Heisman, but he should warrant an invitation to New York.
That’s what happens to an athlete who combines the size of a linebacker with the quickness and ball-hawking skills of a safety. A player who averages more than 100 tackles a season and has six interceptions this season.
Notre Dame has surrendered nine touchdowns under his leadership this fall, allowing opponents only 10 points a game.
Trojans fans can only wonder what might have been if Te’o had signed with USC coming out of Punahou High four years ago. “When you get that dominant (middle) linebacker that’s the best in the country like that, he sets the tempo not just for the defense but for the whole team,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said.
But success cuts both ways, generating a whirlwind of cheering fans and clamoring media. Some young men revel in the attention. It clearly does not suit a kid from the town of Laie, in the northeast corner of Oahu.
Meeting with a reporter, Te’o is uncomfortable talking about himself.
“I understand it comes with the territory,” he said. “But it’s definitely something that is hard for me to do and sometimes it gets overwhelming.”
Even worse, the hype has crept into his thoughts. Five or six tackles don’t seem nearly good enough. He feels a need to dictate the action on every play.
“Sometimes that gets the best of me,” he said. “I have to let the game come to me instead of trying so hard.”
When bad thoughts clutter his brain, when he starts over-pursuing, Te’o must stop and set himself straight.
There isn’t time for church every day, not with practice and classes and homework. Sundays will have to do.
“Church is where I feel most at peace,” he said. “Just trying to keep myself grounded.”
The last few months have brought spiritual growth, learning to trust in God. At the same time, Te’o has rekindled his faith in football, going back to the joy of playing as a kid, the street games with his father, uncles and cousins.
“You know when families go outside and play basketball or volleyball?” Brian Te’o said. “Our family would line up and play football. We have a long association with the game.”
So if you notice the Irish linebacker taking a moment between plays against USC on Saturday, standing apart from his teammates, he might be reconnecting with a childhood vibe.
That means blocking out the hype and expectations. Putting aside life’s bigger questions. Going back to basics.
“I try to limit the amount of things I do,” Te’o said. “Try to keep things simple.”
Amid the fury of the game, the best linebacker in the nation takes a deep breath and tells himself to focus on running, hitting and tackling.
After all, it’s just football.