On Saturday afternoon, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o will be playing the final home game of his four-year career in South Bend. He'll move on to the professional ranks, but his legacy will be forever remembered in the hearts and minds of the Irish faithful.
This is his story.
The conditions couldn't have been more unforgiving for the 18-year-old, blue-chip recruit from Laie, Hawaii, on that November afternoon back in 2008 in South Bend, Ind.
It was Nov. 22, to be exact. Manti Te'o, then a heralded 5-Star linebacker prospect, was on his official visit to Notre Dame. Te'o hadn't ever been east of the Mississippi River, much less further east than the state of California. It was no wonder the insouciant teenager had chosen to wear shorts on a day in which temperatures dipped below 20 degrees.
Eventually, the bitter cold stung Te'o enough that he decided he'd rather play video games with a fellow recruit in the warm confines of the Irish locker room, rather than watch the Irish suffer a 24-23 defeat to lowly Syracuse. It was one of the most catastrophic losses of the Charlie Weis era.
To add insult to injury, Te'o had witnessed the Notre Dame student body pelt its own team with snowballs throughout the horrendous game.
With offers on the table from USC, Oregon, Stanford and BYU, securing a commitment from the highly sought-after Te'o seemed to be nothing but a pipe dream for the Irish after what was viewed by many in the recruiting business as a dreadful official visit.
Three months later, Te'o faced the most momentous decision of his young life, as he was set to choose between USC, BYU or Notre Dame, with a commitment to Pete Carroll's Trojans seemingly a foregone conclusion.
However, in the days leading up to Te'o's decision, his father, Brian, urged his son to follow his heart and listen to what God was telling him. Little by little, Te'o felt as if God was telling him that Notre Dame was the right choice.
Ultimately, Te'o shocked the nation by picking up the Notre Dame baseball cap on National Signing Day 2009, signaling his commitment to the Fighting Irish. His faith-based decision was only the start of his illustrious collegiate career that has been defined by his steadfast faith.
One Season with Weis
Te'o arrived at Notre Dame in the fall of 2009. The kid from Hawaii was faced with the monumental expectations of becoming the best defensive player Notre Dame had seen in, at the very least, the past decade.
Before Te'o could even begin to focus on the awaiting football-related challenges, he would have deal with challenges off the field.
Being exactly 4,278.3 miles from his hometown caused Te'o bouts of homesickness that often spurred him to engage in tearful phone conversations with his parents. They urged him to remain strong and reminded him that he was destined to be at Notre Dame.
Destiny is impossible to see before one's goals have been achieved. It's an abstract thought that a teenager such as Te'o had difficulty grasping during those initial months as a freshman at Notre Dame.
Te'o's predicament took on an added twist following his freshman season, as Charlie Weis, the coach who recruited him to Notre Dame, was fired after a mediocre 6-6 record. The Irish also refused to accept any bowl invitations, souring the collective mood of the team.
Those were sink-or-swim times for Te'o, who kept trudging forward, despite Weis' firing.
The Kelly Era
Less than two weeks after Weis had been fired, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick announced that the university had hired Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly.
Kelly brought with him proven winning experience, as he had led the Bearcats to two consecutive BCS bowl berths prior to accepting Swarbrick's offer to become the 29th head coach in Notre Dame's storied history.
Kelly's first two seasons caused Irish fans consternation, as Notre Dame finished with an overall record of 16-10.
To make matters worse, during Kelly's second season, he made a derisive comment about being able to easily identify "his players" from those who were recruited by Charlie Weis. It was a comment that could have caused a mutiny, but Te'o was a central character in uniting the team despite Kelly's inflammatory comments.
It was a noble effort on Te'o's part that, without question, had an impact on the Irish's surprising 3-0 record entering a home date with Michigan. What transpired during the week preceding a 20-3 victory over then 10th-ranked Michigan State in East Lansing, allowed Te'o to finally grasp the destiny that his parents had spoken of in those agonizing phone calls during his freshman season.
In a span of 48 hours, Te'o learned that both his grandmother and girlfriend had passed away.
In the wake of such devastating news, word spread around Notre Dame's campus that Manti needed, more than ever, the support of the student body. And, boy, did they respond.
Against Michigan on Sept. 22, the student body, along with a majority of the crowd, donned Hawaiian leis in support of Te'o. Having been in that crowd, I can speak to the palpable emotion that was coursing throughout the 80,795 in attendance that evening at Notre Dame Stadium.
Te'o willfully admitted after the 13-6 victory over the Wolverines that looking up into the crowd and seeing the leis, along with the chants of his name, reminded him of why God had chosen Notre Dame as Te'o's place of study.
The Final Chapter
During the Charlie Weis era, Notre Dame was known for recruiting top-notch talent through the promise of developing it for the NFL. Concisely, that's no way to build a true team, as Weis' players placed a significant emphasis on fulfilling their professional dreams.
When Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate announced their intentions to leave school one season early to pursue their NFL dreams, a dark cloud was cast on Notre Dame. Leaving early for the NFL wasn't an ideal the school had come to be known for. In fact, it was the polar opposite of what Notre Dame stands for.
Insert Brian Kelly, and immediately one of the best players in school history, Michael Floyd, chose to finish his degree and represent Notre Dame in a light that it has earned a sterling reputation for.
Through all the intermittent periods that Notre Dame has gone through, Te'o has righted the proverbial ship. He has done so through faith and a profound sense of perseverance. He has done it the way that anyone associated with Notre Dame should be extremely proud of.
On Saturday, take the time to appreciate everything Manti Te'o has done for Notre Dame.
He'll live on in Notre Dame lore for as long as the history books are in existence.