“This event, I hold dear,” he said. “It was here I made maybe the best decision of my life.”
His father, Brian, articulated that decision. “Manti chose a road less taken,” he said.
The 2012 season was a Manti Te'o story book, although not all the chapters were positive. On Sept. 12, within hours, he was given news that his grandmother in Hawaii and his girlfriend at Stanford had died, the latter after a battle with cancer.
He said girlfriend Lennay Kekau “made me promise, when it happened, that I would stay and play,” Te'o said Sunday night.
Stay and play he did. He was the heart and soul of a team that needed every inch of every organ to get to 12-0. That included stunning goal-line stands and dozens of pressure-packed, inspirational moments. In the middle of each was Te'o.
That led to perhaps his toughest physical test of the season.
Monday, Dec. 3, Te'o and a Notre Dame contingent left South Bend, Ind., at 5:45 a.m. They flew to Charlotte, N.C., to receive the Nagurski Award, for defensive player of the year. Tuesday, it was off to New York City for the National Football Foundation Dinner, where Te'o received an $18,000 grant for postgraduate study, a scholarship endowed by the NFL.
Early Wednesday, it was off to Houston to collect the Lombardi Award for the nation's best lineman or linebacker. Then Thursday, on to Orlando, where an ESPN-sponsored show brought him the Walter Camp player of the year award, the Bednarik defensive player of the year award and the Maxwell player of the year trophy.
Friday, it was back to New York for the Heisman and two days of festivities; Sunday morning on to Los Angeles for the Lott Award.
He has also won the Butkus Award for top linebacker. The usual procedure for that is a surprise ceremony on the player's campus. Te'o, of course, was never on campus last week, so that trophy will come to South Bend on Monday.
Sunday night, Te'o took a red-eye flight to Chicago and drove on to South Bend. The victory tour had ended and final exams awaited. He has a 3.5 grade-point average in graphic design and will graduate in 3 1/2 years, although he will stay around Notre Dame this spring so he can walk in May with his graduating class.
His coach, Kelly, was along for the ride this week.
“I wanted to share this, to chase around with him,” Kelly said. “The neat thing is that he is still a college kid. Nothing slick or hip about him. No sound bites.
”I also knew I'll never see another kid like this.“