Notre Dame Shows It Cares for Manti Te’o
By Chris Mahr
Ideally, the relationship between a college football player and his school is mutually beneficial.
In exchange for leaving his heart out on the field every fall weekend, a player should receive the support of his program — whether it’s help with academics, preparation for a pro career (when necessary) or just lending emotional support in times of need.
Alas, the “meat market” nature of the sport renders this an ideal more often than it does a reality. There are nearly 100 players in a major program at any given time. Being there for every one of them just doesn’t happen.
So it is truly heartwarming to see Notre Dame return the love that star linebacker Manti Te’o recently showed for his team and school.
By now, most college football fans have read about how the senior from Hawai’i was a star in the Irish’s 20–3 upset at Michigan State on Saturday while playing through personal grief that would rock any person to their core.
Te’o’s maternal grandmother passed away last Tuesday. Less than 24 hours later, he lost his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, after her long fight with leukemia. No one would have blamed him for bypassing the MSU game and flying back to Hawai’i to mourn. But he stayed in and played.
“He wants to be with his teammates,” coach Brian Kelly told reporters before the game. “He wants to be with his people that care about him.”
“People,” as it turns out, extends far beyond Te’o’s football teammates and deep into the Notre Dame community.
On Wednesday morning, I received an email from a Notre Dame senior named Tyler Moorehead. He included the link for a story he had written for College Spun on Tuesday detailing how, during Saturday’s clash with Michigan at Notre Dame Stadium, all of Irish Nation would get to say “Thank you” to Te’o.
“All Notre Dame fans are encouraged to buy and wear leis, which represent Te’o’s upbringing in Hawai’i,” Moorehead wrote. “In addition, when Manti comes out on the field for the coin toss, the stadium is expected to raise up five fingers to support #Raise5for5, recognizing Te’o’s jersey number.”
The first embedded link in the aforementioned quote is for a Facebook event, “Wear a Lei for Manti.” As of 9 AM ET on Wednesday, more than 4,300 users had RSVP’d “Yes.” (7,500 of the Hawaiian flower necklaces will also be handed out at a Friday pep rally. There is also a Twitter account, @leis4manti.) The Twitter hashtag is something Irish fans are rallying around before Saturday’s game.
Not even Rudy Ruettiger got this kind of love from Notre Dame fans. Indeed, the whole story — how Te’o fought through his personal grief to lead the Irish to victory, how his school rallied around him in his time of need — sounds like the screenplay for Disney’s next tug-on-your-heartstrings sports movie.
A cynic could make the argument that if Te’o were a third-string kicker instead of the star that he is, he wouldn’t be receiving the outpouring of support (or attention) that he’s gotten. But is that really the point?
And what’s to say that it was a guarantee that people would rally behind him just because he’s a star? Plenty of BMOC-type players have dealt with their share of trials before, but not all of them had entire teams and universities lift them up in their hour of need.
A similar situation with former Ohio State star Maurice Clarett ended badly in 2002 when he missed his friend’s funeral back home in Ohio because Ohio State wasn’t allowed to buy him a plane ticket (the team was preparing for the 2003 Fiesta Bowl in Arizona). Clarett’s response: “I guess football’s more important than a person’s life to them.”
Although the criticism was off-base - OSU was only following NCAA rules - the whole thing left a bad taste in the mouths of college football fans.
This situation has been the complete opposite.
Manti Te’o has spent nearly four years flying around the field for Notre Dame like a man possessed, playing his heart out and professing nothing but love for his team and school. The buildup to the game with Michigan on Saturday demonstrates that that relationship has been a two-way street.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.