In typical football jargon they would say that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o played like a “man possessed” yesterday. But in Notre Dame terms, Te’o played like a man inspired, a man “full of grace.”
True, Te’o is often the best defensive man on the field, but his twelve tackles, two pass deflections, and one interception in Notre Dame’s 20-3 domination of 10th-ranked Michigan State, just days after losing his grandmother and girlfriend, was somehow something more. Seemingly everywhere, Te’o’s near-perfect game raised the level of nearly everyone else on the Irish squad as well.
First, there was Te’o’s good friend from back home, little five-foot-nine Robby Toma. Playing perhaps the best game of his life, Toma led Notre Dame with five catches covering 58 yards and proved once and for all he was more than just a thrown-in in Te’o’s ND recruiting, four years ago.
“Earlier in the week he told me he needed me,” Toma said. “I’ve known him since we were five years old. And I was just there for him when he needed to talk or whatnot.
“He’s a real strong guy — spiritually, mentally, physically — and I was just there to be his backbone.”
Then there was John Goodman, Michael Floyd‘s understudy for four years, making an impossible one-handed 36-yard touchdown grab that would have made Floyd proud.
“He’s just one of our great leaders and one of our best all-time players,” receiver John Goodman said, “and if you don’t rally around a player like that, the camaraderie isn’t right, and I think the camaraderie is right on our team.”
And then there was his powerful impact on Coach Brian Kelly himself.
“There’s nobody,” Brian Kelly said when asked if he’d ever had someone like Te’o over his twenty-two years of coaching. “He’s so strong for everybody that when he was in a [tough] time, everybody wanted to help him out, and I’ve never seen that dynamic amongst a team and a group of players. It’s a pretty close locker room.”
Te’o’s presence was so overwhelming that not only did almost every player on both teams shake his hand, but when he went over to the stands after the playing of “Notre Dame, Our Mother,” both the Irish and the Spartan fans gave him a standing ovation, something not seen in an opponent’s stadium since the days of Rockne and Gipp.
“We love you, Manti!” the gathering repeatedly shouted, with Te’o responding by blowing them kisses.
“My family and my girlfriend’s family have received so much love and support from the Notre Dame family,” Te’o said. “Michigan State fans showed some love. And it goes to show that people understand that football is just a game, and it’s a game that we play, and we have fun doing it.” But then Te’o paused, thought about what was missing, and it was no longer fun and games.
“I [wish I] could call my girlfriend right now and talk about the game. But [now] I’ve just got to get on my knees, say a prayer and talk to her that way.”
Last week, some of my Catholic friends wondered how Saturday’s feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows would play out during Saturday’s game, and now it is all quite clear. In playing through the loss of his girlfriend and grandmother, Te’o became the “man of sorrows,” and in doing so inspired the Irish to actually play for Our Lady for the first time in many a year. And not just Her; but in honoring his girlfriend and grandmother, he had the team playing (and being prayed for) by not one but three holy women, a very formidable formula indeed. And for at least one night, the oft-repeated refrain that “Michigan State vs Notre Dame is more than just a game” was no longer a cliché, but the Truth.
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