SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After weeks of personal tumult the world could see, Manti Te’o set about getting weight off his shoulders by putting weight on his shoulders. On a Friday in Hawaii, he set up tents for his grandmother’s funeral service. He rose around 7 a.m. the next morning to help with decorations.
By the end of the service, Te’o was enveloped by a vast family and the cascade of laughter and stories that celebrate a life. That night, he and Robby Toma, his friend and teammate, cracked jokes as they people-watched at the airport. Te’o hadn’t yet returned to Notre Dame, but he was back.
“If he’s talking and smiling,” Toma said, “you know he’s all right.”
In one all-consuming three-week span, the Notre Dame linebacker’s grandmother and girlfriend passed away, after which he fueled two more Irish victories while barreling into Heisman Trophy discussion and earning a Sports Illustrated cover. Te’o’s life has been so teeming that, as of Wednesday afternoon, he hadn’t actually held the magazine.
This was fine. His regenerative trip home helped him do some page-turning.
“I’ve never felt so strong,” Te’o said. “Something my girlfriend always stressed to me was being humble and if anything, this experience has truly humbled me.”
To endure, the deeply devout and loyal Te’o relied on all available support: family, teammates, religion. That he never left the Irish until the off week might be a sacrifice that resonates through a suddenly promise-filled season.
“He showed he was here for us,” cornerback Bennett Jackson said. “We showed we were here for him.”
At moments, it was agonizing. The funeral for his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who died of leukemia, took place in California the day of the Michigan game. Te’o knew when they would close the casket, and during the Irish’s walk-through, he asked defensive coordinator Bob Diaco for the time.
It was 12:01 p.m. Eastern, 9:01 a.m. Pacific. One minute after Kekua’s coffin closed.
“She said, ‘Babe, if anything happens to me, promise that you’ll still stay over there and that you’ll play and that you’ll honor me through the way you play,’ “ Te’o said.
“All she wanted was some white roses. That’s all she asked for. So I sent her roses, and sent her two picks along with that.”
Indeed, Te’o’s two-interception night against the Wolverines stoked more agreeable commotion: Heisman Trophy chatter.
It is, in Te’o’s word, “surreal.” When he played video games, he would convert himself into a running back, to win the Heisman that way.
“To be actually a candidate for that, in real life, is a real surprise for me,” Te’o said. “You just have to keep winning. If I keep winning and I don’t win the Heisman, I’ll be so happy. If my play during those winning games helps me win the Heisman, so be it. But I just want to win.”
Refreshed, if not entirely unburdened, Te’o returned this week to that mission.
“Everything will be good, everything will be great, and then one day you’ll be in the middle of a storm,” Te’o said, referencing a quote on his Twitter profile. “What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes. ... When life gets hard walking, try walking on your knees.”
©2012 Chicago Tribune
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