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Te'o leads Irish defense, key to perfect season

By TOM COYNE, Associated Press Published: December 7, 2012
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With seven Heisman winners, Notre Dame has had some unconventional winners. Paul Hornung, who played quarterback, halfback and safety, is the only Heisman winner to play for a losing team. The Irish were 2-8 when he won in 1956. Quarterback John Huarte won in 1964 while leading the Irish to a 9-1 record a season after failing to letter for a 2-7 squad.

The most compelling part of Teo's story, though, is his journey. How after three mostly mediocre seasons for the team, he helped turn this season into one Irish fans will talk about for years.

The turning point may have actually come last season. After a 31-17 loss to USC last October, Kelly was asked if getting players to play like he wants at Notre Dame was a harder sell than at other schools. Kelly replied: “You can see the players that I recruited here. You know who they are. We've had one class of recruiting, kids that I've had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along, but it's a process. It can't happen overnight. They're getting there. They're making good progress.”

That upset some players, with Te'o tweeting: “Playin for my bros and that's it!!!!”

Kelly apologized for his remarks.

“I think anytime in a family there are going to be some disagreements,” Kelly said. “Maybe the way I did it wasn't the appropriate way. But I think it was pretty clear that we understood each other in terms of what my expectations were. I just wish I handled it better.”

The Irish came together after that, with Te'o the catalyst as the Irish won four of their next five.

The fact that a Mormon from Hawaii who hates cold weather wound up at a Roman Catholic university in a northern Indiana city that averages more than 70 inches of snow a year seems unlikely, especially considering he was such a big fan of archrival USC growing up that he was in tears when the Irish nearly upset the Trojans in 2005.

Te'o wore shorts and flip-flops for his campus visit during a blustery November weekend when some in the crowd threw snowballs at Irish players during an embarrassing 24-23 loss to Syracuse, the first eight-loss team to ever beat the Irish.

Te'o has said the game didn't play a role in his decision. What did, though, was his English teacher showing the movie “Dead Poets Society” on the eve of signing day in February 2009. Te'o had already decided he was going to USC, but a character in the film struggling with a difficult life choice prompted Te'o to rethink his choice. He prayed, and something told him to go to Notre Dame.

He prayed again following his freshman season about whether to return or go on a Mormon mission. He did the same thing again a year ago when he was deciding whether to enter the NFL draft or return for his senior season.

He believes what has happened to him this season shows the power or prayer.

“I think for anybody who's questioning if God lives, he lives, and I'm an example of that. For those who don't know if he answers your prayers, he does, because he answered mine. If he didn't answer prayers, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't have come here. I definitely wouldn't have come back for my senior year. And I wouldn't have done a lot of things that I've done,” he said.

Te'o hopes he'll leave a legacy, which he surely will if the Irish beat Alabama next month and win their first national championship since 1988. But the main thing he wants is to be remembered as someone who gave his best.

“If you don't do things to be the best at it, why are you doing it? So I'm just trying to be the best,” he said. “Once I leave here, I hope that the impact I've made not only on the football field but in people's lives will forever be remembered.”


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