Notre Dame Football: A Letter from Manti Te'o

By Tom O'Toole

Hi Manti,

One of my editors just sent me a link to Greg Couch’s article about your letter to Bridget Smith and her family. For the uninitiated, Bridget was a twelve-year-old girl who, after a three-year battle, finally succumbed to cancer on October 5, but not before her parents read her your two-page email just before she died, and the girl who loved the Irish would die, dreaming of her hero.

And a hero you were…

As the story goes, Bridget’s parents, Brian, a Notre Dame alum and fan, and Louise, a St. Mary’s alum, had just watched the Notre Dame-Michigan game with Bridget in the University of Michigan Intensive Care Unit, when they realized that Bridget’s brain tumor was so bad that she most likely would never leave the hospital again. Fortunately, a mutual friend was able to get in touch with you, Bridget’s favorite player; as it turned out, just in time.

“Obviously, going through what I’ve gone through, with my girlfriend passing away from cancer, that whole thing hit home for me,” you were quoted saying at the time. “My whole thing was just to reach out and let them know I’m here…that the heavenly father is always there. Although it may not seem like it right now, He’s always there to help. It was definitely hard to write [but] I think it helped to ease my pain, too.”

As to the Smith’s reaction? “We opened that letter…it was just a bright spot on the saddest day of our lives,” Louise Smith said. “We read it to her; we shared with her what it said. They say hearing is the last thing to go…I believe she [heard] it [before she passed away]. It’s so encouraging to have someone in that position know there’s something more important than football, more important than athletics. It was a beautiful letter, just sharing the experience with the death of his girlfriend.”

In the end, Louise and Brian said that while they wanted to keep Te’o’s letter private and personal, at least for now, they would be okay with seeing the end of that letter published. And I’m glad they did.

Please tell Bridget that I am her biggest fan. Thank her for me for being an inspiration for me. I wish you and your family all the best. And know that I will be praying for your family, especially Bridget. God bless you all, Manti Te’o.

And later, Manti, you said something even more amazing. “I’m human. I have my own mistakes…my own weaknesses. But that doesn’t exempt me from being there for somebody. I’m a knucklehead sometimes, but if I can have an impact on somebody’s life in a positive way, I’m going to do it,” sounding just like our favorite priest who sermonized that, although our motives are never completely pure, if we pray to Mary, she can help to make them so. Meanwhile, your soulful insights continued.

“I’m always looking to serve somebody. It just goes back to what my parents taught me…I still constantly pray for Bridget and her family. You know, Bridget’s in a better place now. She’s with my girlfriend. There’s no better place to be.”

And there’s the rub exactly, Manti! Sure it’s sad, damn near devastating, when death comes to loved ones, especially when they are so young. But you nailed it when you said that Bridget is not only in a better place, but with your girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, and your grandmother—no doubt all rooting for the Irish like crazy.

I should have known that your great spiritual strength comes not from two saintly women but three pullin’ for you in heaven. And on the wider scale, who would you rather have rooting for the Irish up there than a rabid twelve-year-old female fan that loved zebras (the animals, not the refs) movies (Rudy no doubt) and Notre Dame football? A girl who, when she lost her hair to chemo, made others laugh by painting an ND logo on her head?

Indeed, nothing could be so sad…but at the same time, so inspirational—and so funny.

When you first came to Notre Dame, you were sure God wanted you there, yet at the time you didn’t exactly know why. Well, after receiving the news about the Smith’s desperate situation and then writing your letter, I dare say you know now. Still, just as winning football games doesn’t get any easier, the “serving” part gets tougher too, and in my next post I hope to put your “Irish letter legacy” in historical context, as well as to offer you some help in dealing with it.

My next post: My Advice to Manti: Letters from Notre Dame’s Past
Related: Manti Te’o to Play Saturday Despite Loss of Two Loved Ones

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