It wasn’t hard for me to decide. We weren’t doing so well, and yet still there were talks about legendary status. Just imagine if you’ve experienced a successful season what that would look like. –Manti Te’o, on why he came–and stayed–at Notre Dame
Since I’ve been focusing so much on Notre Dame‘s Senior Day in this week’s writings, I would be remiss if I didn’t also blog about the insightful Senior Day revelations of the Fighting Irish’s most famous (and legendary?) senior, linebacker Manti Te’o.
Actually, Te’o's first Notre Dame Senior Day experience came when he was still a senior in high school. The game itself, in which Charlie Weis‘ underachieving 2008 team was upset by lowly Syracuse, was a total debacle, and included fans pelting first the Orangemen (my companions were guilty of aiming a few at the silly Orange mascot) and later at Weis himself.
Needless to say, the Irish gained few high school recruits that day, but Te’o was not your average high school senior, either on or off the field. Somehow, Te’o not only felt “the spirit” of the school that day, but “could really feel” the players’ sadness.
“So amongst the cold and the snow and all that,” Te’o recalls, “I think the worst part of that [day] was to see the pain in the players’ eyes as they were crying leaving the stadium, not because they lost, but because that was their last experience playing under the dome.”
In other words, when he saw the players were sad about the loss not just for themselves or even their teammates, but for the place, he knew there was something special about Notre Dame.
Flash forward to last year’s Senior Day. Despite being just a junior, many scouts assumed Te’o would leave behind a mediocre Irish team and declare himself for the NFL Draft, where he was assured of being a first round pick—a move Te’o was seriously considering as well.
But according to Te’o, “the tipping point for me on whether or not I was going to enter into the draft or not [was] seeing just the joy in their parents’ eyes and see the joy in my teammates’ eyes…[whether they] ran out in full gear [or] came out on crutches…each of them had the same expression on their face: pure joy.”
“To see that, that was that moment where I said, ‘Yeah, I know what I’m going to do. That’s something that money can’t buy.”
So Te’o not only came to Notre Dame but came back to Notre Dame based on Senior Day, and an already stellar career became something special. When asked about his impact at Notre Dame, in typical Te’o fashion, his first response didn’t even touch on football.
“I don’t know to what extreme I’ve had an impact on people, but I just try to have as positive an impact on as many people as I can,” he replied.
“What I’ve learned is that people may not necessarily know your name or remember where you’re from, but they’ll definitely know how you made them feel. If I can make somebody feel important, make somebody feel included, I’m happy.”
Of course, that answer may suffice for a Holy Cross priest, but sportswriters don’t want to hear your feelings about happiness, but the Heisman.
“I think when my name is being tossed around as a national champion, that’s what I’m looking for,” Te’o answered. “You ask any Heisman winner that wasn’t a national champion what they would rather be, and I think they would rather be the latter, a national champion.”
“So that’s what I want [too]… I’d rather be holding a crystal ball than a bronze statue.”
But perhaps the most telling part of Te’o's interview, for it touched on both his humanitarian side and his Heisman hype, was Te’o's response to up-and-coming Irish football recruits.
“I always tell them that I love this school so I’m always going to be biased towards Notre Dame,” he explains. But then comes the line that perfectly summarized both Notre Dame and Te’o, for it perfectly summarizes what sets the two apart.
“Then I tell them, ‘Hey, when you’re a champion at other schools you’re a champion. When you’re a champion at Notre Dame, you become a legend.’”
No matter what happens in his last three games for Notre Dame, few Fighting fans would argue that Te’o has already reached legendary status in his adopted home beneath the Dome. And fewer still would dispute Te’o's logic that a National Championship is worth more than any one man’s legend. But there are a few fans, that rare breed who remain loyal both to the Irish and Notre Dame, who believe that when a star Irish player discovers the source of the Notre Dame spirit (aka the Lady on the Dome) they transform from being a legend into an immortal.
If Te’o could see the Notre Dame Spirit below in that snowball loss to Syracuse, surely he could glimpse the Notre Dame Spirit above the stadium after his Senior Day win against Wake Forest.