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January 4, 2013

Father had big impact in Te'o's football success

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. | To understand Manti Te'o the football player, you first have to understand Manti Te'o the child.

Te'o, Notre Dame's highly-decorated senior linebacker, grew up in Laie, Hawaii, the son of a father who wanted him to play football. Before he had even taken up the game, Te'o was asked by his father to choose a number.

"Since I was 5 years old, I said five," Te'o said.

Brian Te'o, the father, didn't know enough about football. He set out to gain that knowledge so he could pass it on to his son.

"The father wasn't a coach, but would go to coaching clinics around to find out the small nuances and techniques to help teach Manti," said Bob Diaco, Notre Dame's defensive coordinator. "That kind of commitment, that kind of love, the culture that he's from, he brings all that to the position, to the unit, to the team, to the university."

Manti Te'o learned from his father's lessons and grew into a force as a high school football player. He was named 2008 High School Athlete of the Year by Sporting News and national defensive player of the year by USA Today.

Rated as one of the top prospects in the country, he made the decision to leave his island home and signed with Notre Dame. Over the course of the last four seasons, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound player has become perhaps the best defensive player in the country.

The senior linebacker finished second in balloting for the Heisman Trophy, the highest finish ever by a defensive player. He was named Walter Camp Play of the Year and won the Maxwell, Bednarik, Nagurski and Butkus awards as well as the Lott and Lombardi trophies.

And when it came time to collect all that hardware, Te'o the son invited his father along.

"I think any child's greatest accomplishment is when they see the joy in their parents' eyes and they're able to do something for them that they couldn't do before, and to repay them for the countless hours and days that they've sacrificed to make sure that you live your dream," Manti Te'o said. "I just happened to be the lucky guy to learn from him."

Like any son, of course, Manti was a little embarrassed by his father's actions on the awards circuit. His father took photos of food and videotaped from the car as they toured New York for the Heisman presentation.

"I'm like, dad, we complain about the tourists in Hawaii and them driving 10 mph on the highway," Manti said. "What are you guys doing? It's just water, it's just coconut trees (in Hawaii), and you're taking pictures of lasagna."

It was funny to the son, but it was also touching.

"For me, that's a joy," he said. "That's what life is about. It's not about the money, it's not about the big homes, it's about those experiences, those little experiences that you get to share with the ones you love."

Manti Te'o had to leave his loved ones to live up to his football potential. It would have been more comfortable to stay home and play for Hawaii or perhaps, as a Morman, to play at BYU.

Instead, he signed with Notre Dame and relocated to South Bend, Ind., a world away in distance as well as in culture.

It was tough at first, but he adapted.

"When I first got there, I was like, this is a totally different place, I'm not going to really let anybody in at first, I'm just going to feel it out," he said. "Once I broke down those walls, I was just surprised to see that ... Hawaii and South Bend are very similar. The people there are very loving, they're very carrying. South Bend loves Notre Dame. That's what I've experienced there, and the people there have been nothing but great to me and my teammates."

In short, Manti Te'o found a new family at Notre Dame. When he lost his girlfriend to Leukemia and his grandmother to cancer in a matter of days earlier this season, that family was there for him.

"You know, this team is very special to me," he said, "and the guys on it have always been there for me through the good times and the bad times. I rarely have a quiet time to myself because I always have somebody calling me, asking do you want to go to the movies, Coach is always calling me, asking me, 'Are you OK? Do you need anything?' ... I'm always around my guys, always around my family."

Reach Tommy Deas at tommy@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0224.


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