Manti Te’o returns to Notre Dame 10 years after Lennay Kekua ruse
SOUTH BEND – What unfolded on the ninth floor of the Corbett Family Hall – the Notre Dame Stadium press box – early Saturday afternoon probably could not have happened sooner.
Not five years ago. Or six. Or seven or eight. Certainly not 10 years ago, when Notre Dame went through a magical regular season unbeaten behind a certain Hawaii linebacker and played to win a national championship for the first time since 1988.
Days after that long night in South Florida, the world as former Irish linebacker Manti Te’o knew it was indeed over. It was January 16, 2013 — at 4:10 p.m. — when Deadspin dropped the story describing how Te’o’s “girlfriend” never really existed. What followed was, well, we know what followed.
Notre Dame football vs Cal preview:How to watch a game on TV, radio
Jokes. The confusion. The whispers. TV interviews. The whole thing.
On Saturday, Te’o was on campus for the fourth time since playing his last game, in his final run out of the stadium’s north tunnel on Seniors’ Day that afternoon in November 2012. Four years earlier, he wore denim shorts – jorts – and sat in the stands on a bitterly cold day that would see the Irish players bombarded with snowballs thrown by the student body in their home final against Syracuse in 2008. He left the stadium early that day. , spent four seasons as one of the most dominant linebackers in the game and on the program.
On Saturday he was back and on the ninth floor to spend a few minutes with the local media, truly for the first time since his last game at a stadium that looked, sounded and felt different from Saturday. Doing media was Te’o’s choice.
And it was awesome. A guy standing? For sure.
Yet, why do it? Why not?
“Oh, yeah,” he said, patting the table for emphasis. “I owe everything to Notre-Dame. I owe everything to this school, including all of you. You are all my friends.
Not quite, but the opportunity to speak with someone who shouldn’t tell anyone outside of his inner circle was amazing. The hollow look on his face, the look Te’o wore for so many weeks, months, and even years following Deadspin’s story, that was long gone. He bounded out of the elevator and into the back area of the press box with energy, waving to people to his left, making eye contact with people to his right, while wearing gold sneakers, jeans, a green shirt (of course) and a green and blue hat.
“What’s up? What’s up?” Te’o asked everyone and no one in particular. “What’s up guys?”
The Te’o we last saw in 2012? In 2013? In stupid TV interviews to clear up confusion (Katie Couric)? This guy was long gone. The Te’o we saw on Saturday was someone we – and he – deserved to see and be because his college career would turn into a pro career, too short due to inefficiency and injuries.
‘I’m happy for him’:Marist Liufau says of Manti Te’o after Our Lady clears the air
Why come back on Saturday? For this game? For a team that entered the contest against California 0-2?
Easy. Originally from Hawaii, Te’o will always be a Laie boy. It is the house. The same goes for South Bend. The same goes for this campus, where he became a man, where he became a Notre Dame man. Te’o was quick to repeat it Saturday – Notre Dame is home because some of the best years of his life have been spent on campus. Perhaps the best.
At the stadium on Saturday, of course. But down the street to the football stadium. At the library. Speak with the food servers in the southern dining room. Joking with the campus security guards. Returning to her dormitory in the freezing cold in the middle of winter. Far from home, far from your loved ones. What was his favorite place? Hard to say. There was a lot.
“It’s still home,” Te’o said. “I don’t think there is a place that isn’t special. As for the feeling, it’s always the same, my brother.
Life is good these days for Te’o
Our Lady, says Te’o, is his sanctuary. Was as a player. Now as a retired player. Forever will be as a person and whatever happens next in the 31-year-old’s life.
What happened off the court during Te’o’s senior season? There wasn’t enough time to dive deep into it, at least not on Saturday. Go read the stories. Go see both episodes Netflix Documentary – Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.It offers a lot of explanations and answers.
Even before the documentary was launched – and it needed Te’o’s participation to mean anything – he insisted on Saturday that he was already at peace with his life. What happened in his senior year, when he finished second in the Heisman Trophy and won an individual awards truck. What happened off the pitch. What finally happened in the NFL, when he slipped to a second-round pick (pick #38). When the game that had seemingly been so easy for him never really was, as he played for three teams in eight seasons.
There was no reason to do this doc. As for Saturday, Te’o did it.
“Honestly, I was a little worried about it,” he said. “I was like, man, it was one of those things of, ‘I don’t want to talk about this anymore.’ All the facts are there and I’m happy with that because it’s factual (so) let’s see how it goes.
“Since day one, it’s been nothing but positive.”
Speaking to the Irish on Friday, Te’o drew a parallel with the choppy waters that engulfed him and what Notre Dame had to navigate in the 0-2 opener. Feel sorry for themselves? Better that no one Irish feel that around Te’o. He wouldn’t have any of that, not for the guys he called “the boys” on Saturday.
“Man, c’est la vie,” said Te’o, who knows that better than anyone. “It’s the best thing about football, it’s the biggest parallel to life. It’s going to start the way you wanted it to. Keep going.”
It was funny to see a lanyard and a college diploma hanging around Te’o’s neck. Like, he really needed to be identified. He could go wherever he wanted in this building, on this campus. Who was going to stop him from going where he wanted to go?
It’s been 10 years and life has taken so many twists and turns, but he’s still freaking out MANTI TE’O.
One place Te’o really wanted to go at least once again was down the stairs from the Irish locker room, out of the tunnel and onto the playing surface. Just one more time. Maybe space run and tackle, like he did against Nevada in his first college game when people first heard about that kid Te’o wearing the No. 5 jersey. When play slowed down and he realized – even against an overmatched opponent – that he could be unrivaled on the football pitch.
For most of his career, he was.
Just one more snap. One more REP. Once again where he could make a game.
Te’o said he would give anything – everything except his wife (Jovi) and their one-year-old daughter and son who is on the way – to put on the pads, to put on that jersey, one more time.
“I miss the game; I miss the game,” he said. “I miss the chess game, football is for me. I miss the plane rides. I miss the conversation with the guys. I miss all that.”
We could have spent hours with Te’o on Saturday, and he probably would have liked it. He was comfortable. He was relaxed. He was cowardly. He wasn’t nervous or suspicious or anything he should be considering what he’s been through. But even those meager eight minutes were enough, and when they were over he was off to his next stop.
Kick-off was almost 90 minutes away, but it had already been a busy morning, a busy afternoon, a busy weekend for one of the program’s greats. Off Te’o is gone, to live another day of playing on campus, to live his life. Football is no longer part of it but even without it, it’s still a good life.
A great life after proving you can walk through hell – and he did – and emerge on the other side with something he was quick to show on Saturday.
Follow South Bend Tribune columnist and NDInsider Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.