Notre Dame LB Te'o staying strong through tragedy

Associated Press Modified: October 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm •  Published: October 3, 2012
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — The profile page on the Twitter account of Manti Te'o doesn't say he's a Notre Dame linebacker, that he's being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate or that he's a Sports Illustrated cover boy.

Instead, it features a quote from "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas: "Life is a storm. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes."

Te'o has been through a storm.

His maternal grandmother, Annette Santiago, died in Hawaii after a long illness on Sept. 11 and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died in California of leukemia several hours later. Te'o didn't miss a practice that week, choosing to be with his teammates as the Irish prepared for their game at then-No. 10 Michigan State, even though coach Brian Kelly told him he didn't need to be there.

Te'o calls it the hardest thing he's ever had to do.

"To be able to operate, and to be able to try to continue with my daily routine, but knowing that I just lost a woman that I truly loved, that was the hardest thing," he said.

The task was made even harder knowing he couldn't attend her funeral in Carson City, Calif.. He said Lennay had made him promise he wouldn't miss a game, instead asking him to honor her with his play.

Te'o did that. He had 12 tackles, one for a loss, and broke up two passes in the win against Michigan State. A week later, he had two interceptions, leading to a touchdown and a field goal, in a 13-6 win over Michigan in which he had eight tackles. The Irish defense didn't give up a touchdown in the two games.

The performances caught the attention of his teammates, his classmates and college football fans across the country.

"At that time he may have been a little weak inside, but he never showed it out," defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. "He stayed strong. Watching him kept us going strong."

Te'o has been the driving force behind the best Notre Dame defense in at least a decade, leading the Irish to their 4-0 start and their No. 9 ranking. He has played a role in seven of the 13 turnovers forced by the Irish, intercepting three passes, recovering two fumbles and hurrying the quarterback twice on passes that were intercepted.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco believes the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Te'o is the finest football player in college, saying he can power his way through blocks, but moves like a much smaller player.

"He's a unique blend of being able to be kind and good and courteous and warm and friendly when he's not inside the gates or inside the stripes, and then when he's in there he's an absolute warrior," Diaco said.

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