As Manti Te’o preps for his final game in a Fighting Irish uniform, legions of Notre Dame fans find themselves reflecting on just how special the All-American linebacker’s career has been.
Te’o made a valiant run at the Heisman Trophy only to finish second behind Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. Nonetheless, Teo dominated the college football’s postseason awards, winning eight to become the most decorated collegiate football player of all time.
It’s safe to say without Te’o the Irish wouldn’t be sitting at 12-0 one win away from capturing the school’s first national championship since the 1988 season.
No question Te’o is the heart and soul of Brian Kelly’s team and is arguably the greatest player to ever don the Blue and Gold. That’s quite a statement considering all the great players who have called Notre Dame home.
Without question Te’o's popularity is off the charts with Notre Dame fans and will forever be remembered in Irish lore.
“Even with the Heisman results we are still very proud of Manti,” said lifelong Notre Dame fan Rob Miller, who lives about 30 minutes southwest of Notre Dame’s campus. “It was disappointing to see that the voters disagreed with us South Benders.”
“It (not winning the Heisman) didn’t take away from the incredible season he’s had,” said Riley Trott, a high school freshman in northern Indiana. “In my opinion, it shouldn’t have gone to Johnny Manziel, but as we all know, most defensive players don’t get it.”
Dan Patterson, a Notre Dame employee for years, thought Te’o was more than worthy of the Heisman.
“He’s a great guy and deserved it on character alone,” Patterson said. “He’s the best player I’ve seen come through Notre Dame.”
Notre Dame alum Bobbie Milliken said Te’o's qualities as a football player and student-athlete is what sets him apart.
“He has been the heart of the Notre Dame defense,” she said. “He’s helped carry the team to No. 1 with a chance to be national champions. In addition to being a great defender, he’s been an inspirational team leader for Notre Dame.”
Damon Groves, a middle school teacher about a half hour from Notre Dame’s campus, couldn’t agree more.
“Manti Te’o came to Notre Dame for the right reasons: To prepare for his future,” he said. “His main goals are family, education and football.
“He is ‘thee’ example of what Notre Dame football stands for.”
Last spring Te’o, who would’ve been a high NFL Draft pick, opted to return to Notre Dame so he could graduate and perhaps be a part of a special season. Mission accomplished.
Despite suffering tremendous loss in his personal life when his grandmother and girlfriend both passed away within 24 hours of one another in September, Te’o didn’t lose his focus on the football field or in the classroom.
“Te’o never forgot the people who helped him be who he is,” said John Schmidt, another long-time Notre Dame fan. “He also sent the message: Finish what you start. He’s a great role model.”
Schmidt’s wife, Loretta, thinks Te’o has changed the face of college football.
“He has taught the world a lesson in perseverance and keeping your eye on the ball,” she said. “His focus is on doing your best and giving 200 percent no matter the odds or the circumstances. He has taught us about character, faith and life in such a powerful way. What an inspiration to everyone near and far.”
Now Te’o, who graduated this month in just three-and-a-half years and maintained better than a 3.0 GPA, is focused on one thing and one thing only, beating Alabama and winning the national title.
Just imagine if Te’o leads the Irish to an upset win over Alabama? His legend will soar to even greater heights.
“Notre Dame is a school that produces legends and Notre Dame has been blessed to have another one for the ages,” Groves said.
Groves’ daughter, Chelsea, a high school freshman, said Te’o is as special as they come.
“Manti Te’o has connected with people near and far,” she said. “There will never be another person like him, even at Notre Dame.”
There won’t and if Te’o's appetite for a national championship is fueled by being slighted by Heisman voters, the Crimson Tide better beware.