Bountiful High assistant football coach Alema Te’o was still marveling at the moment from his Southern California hotel room, one night before undefeated and top-ranked Notre Dame was to wrap up its unforgettable season against rival USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Alema’s great nephew, Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o, had just gotten off a plane after flying in from South Bend, Ind., with the rest of the team, but he still found time to gather with family members who had poured into L.A. for the big game.
“He could have said, ‘I’m tired, I need to go to my room,’ but he didn’t,” Alema Te’o said of Manti. “He stayed the whole time with family members, talked to them about working hard and doing what’s right.”
If there is a face behind the resurgence of the most storied college football program in the country, it’s Te’o, the Herculean heart of the Fighting Irish defense who also showcases a million-dollar smile and a big-hearted attitude that has helped Notre Dame reach the BCS National Championship game against No. 2 Alabama on Jan. 7.
Teo’s role in helping restore Notre Dame to prominence also has resulted in another pinnacle. He will be in New York Saturday as a Heisman Trophy finalist, along with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein.
This is mostly foreign territory for a linebacker — no defensive player has ever won the Heisman and only a few have ever become a finalist. But it is a potentially history-making moment for the Pacific Islander community in Utah, the rest of the U.S and abroad. No college football player of Polynesian descent has ever won a Heisman, let alone been invited to the award ceremony.
“No doubt if he wins it was destiny,” said Alema Te’o, who created the popular All-Poly Football Camp 14 years ago. “If Manti wins it, I can honestly believe that this will be the first step in elevating the effort level for the next generation [of Polynesian players] to come up. Everybody and their dog is going to want to be like Manti. They already do.”
Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake noted that the Sitakes and the Te’os are old family friends and he and Manti Te’o even hail from the same hometown in Hawaii. It was Sitake who drew the job of recruiting Te’o to Utah four years ago, but Utah’s defensive coordinator said he is proud of the way Te’o carved out a niche for himself in South Bend.
“He represents himself and Notre Dame the right way,” Sitake said. “He’s always giving credit to his roots and his family and his faith and when you have a guy like that people are going to flock to him whether they’re Polynesian or not. There’s T-shirts out here in Utah that say ‘Manti for Heisman.’ He’s a dynamic young man.”
Saia Saltiban, who will be a senior outside linebacker at Bingham next season, said Te’o’s collegiate career is epitomized by his ability to think for himself and make the most of his decision to go to Notre Dame.
“I just think he’s a different player because he chose his own path. As a Polynesian, you’re supposed to stay at a West Coast school, but he went to an [eastern],” Saltiban said. “I’d rather have him win the Heisman Trophy because I think it’d be a bigger attribute for the Polynesian football community. He’s going to have a great career in the NFL and he’s going to be a legend in college football history.”
Alema Te’o said his nephew has an innate ability to simplify things when the circumstances may seem gargantuan to others. That night before the Fighting Irish defeated the Trojans 22-13 to punch their ticket to the BCS title game, Manti Te’o talked to every last one of his cousins who took different treks to Southern California to visit their hero.
“He’s already got his next group of cousins wearing his jersey and walking and talking just like him,” Alema Te’o said.