When Manti Te’o returned from Christmas Break in January, he had two surprises in store for his Irish teammates.
One — he had decided not to take a two-year service mission during his college career, as is customary in the Church of Latter Day Saints, of which Te’o is a member.
Two — he was sporting a Samoan tattoo, courtesy of his native Hawaii, which covered his left bicep.
Irish fans and players alike were overjoyed by the first decision, but it is the tattoo — a tradition in Samoan culture — that displays the true character of Te’o.
The cultural value of a tattoo
“It is very special to me, because it represents everything that I stand for: my culture, my home and my family,” the junior linebacker said. “Everything that is important to me I have here on my arm.”
Te’o speaks of his culture and family as often as he does football. Not only does the tattoo represent the Samoan culture, but he also sought permission from his parents before putting the ink to skin.
“Whenever you put something on yourself that is permanent, you want to ask your parents, especially if your parents are Samoan,” he said. “My dad is the Samoan patriarch of our family, and he has one. … They were very supportive of it.”
Once his teammates saw the “tatau” — Samoan for tattoo — they quickly deemed it the “tightest” tattoo on the team, and some even considered getting a similar one. But to Te’o, while he does consider some of his teammates to be as close as brothers, the tattoo is not for just anyone.
“Sure, it’s a very nice tattoo, but it represents more than just some body art. It represents a whole culture, a whole group of people,” said Te’o, a nominee for the 2010 Rotary Lombardi Trophy. “For somebody to get this, and not be Samoan, makes me wonder, ‘Why are you getting it?’”
Values shine without a mission
The first of those two surprises — not taking a two-year service mission — could carry effects for years to come, especially the next three years for Irish fans. When he first arrived at Notre Dame, Te’o was considering taking his mission after his freshman season, but his time at Notre Dame, and time talking with his family, led to the Christmas Break decision.
“When I went home over Christmas I sat down with my family. I prayed a lot about it,” Te’o said. “I just felt that it was the right thing to do to come back and focus on football, try my best to help my team win.”
Even though he has remained in northern Indiana, Te’o is constantly reminded of his family, culture and faith, simply by not seeing them around him.
“It’s not that hard to remember who you are and what you stand for when you look around and there is nobody like you,” he said. “There was no other Samoan.”
Now, with freshmen Justin Utupo and Kona Schwenke joining him on the football field, Te’o sees two Samoans that remind him of the values he stands by.
“Samoans are very prideful people. We pride ourselves in our culture and our strength of values that we live by, and how we respect others,” he said. “Discipline. Honor. All those kind of values that aren’t really stressed in today’s society. That is something that I’m proud of, that I come from a culture that stresses loyalty, strength and honor.”
Samoan values at Notre Dame
Te’o has found those values among his Irish teammates and coaches as well.
From his defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco, Te’o hears criticism and advice that he always responds positively to.
“He is interested in being the very best that he can be,” Diaco said. “He has a nice, thick skin. He isn’t overly-sensitive to constructive criticism, so he comes out diligently to try to work on the things you’re coaching from the day before. That is how a player moves forward.”
Te’o handles that criticism so well because he has always heard it, especially back at home, he said.
“When it comes to the thick skin, it is from knowing who I am, knowing the kind of guy that my parents raised me to be.”
Among his teammates, Te’o has found suitable additions to his five siblings at home.
“I have friends here who I am very close with. [Junior linebacker] Darius Fleming is one of my very best friends. He is one of those guys that I can go to, no matter what,” Te’o said, adding sophomore running back Cierre Wood to that list as well. “I know no matter what happens, they’ll always have my back, and I’ll always have their backs.”
With Te’o’s parents and four-year-old brother Manasseh coming into town for both the Purdue and Michigan games, his Notre Dame friends and Samoan parents will spend much time together, but Te’o knows the meetings and meals will feel as if everyone has always known each other.
“My parents know that my friends are mirror images of me, so when they see them, they aren’t shocked. They are very happy around my friends,” Te’o said. “I completely understand that my friends have a direct impact on me, and I’ll never choose a friend, call him my brother, if he is somebody that could be detrimental to me in any way.”
Family on the field
Having those friends, or “brothers,” on the field should help Te’o play even better than he did in his freshman season, when he finished with 63 tackles.
“When you are around people you don’t really know and you don’t really trust, you tend to not come out of your shell,” Te’o said. “But when you trust somebody, you can be you. You can do things, you can act the way you want to act and you know they won’t be offended.”
That might not seem real applicable to play on the field, but when he takes his position Saturday, he will know Fleming is less than 10 yards to his side, along with nine other of his closest friends nearby. Of those 11 players on the field, Te’o will be leading them, in what Diaco called “that spot.”
“I’m just going to be me. I’m going to make sure all my teammates are ready, are aligned where they need to be,” Te’o said. “That’s all it’s about. It’s on me to make sure that offense doesn’t score. At the end of the day, if we play our hearts out and execute on every play, we’ll be able to look at the scoreboard and be happy.”
When Te’o explains the meaning of his tattoo, the meaning of his family and the role of his friends around him, it is easy to envision him playing his heart out.
But in all of reality, that won’t be enough for him. Only one result this year will satisfy Te’o: “I am just excited more than anything, to get out there and start a new season. Just win.”
Once this season plays out, win or lose, Te’o has another mission to continue, on his left bicep. This time his team won’t be as surprised.
“The tattoo’s going to extend up here [onto the lower portion of his neck] and then down here [onto his upper chest],” Te’o said. “I’ll wait until after the season because I have to go home to get it, but it’ll be as soon as possible.”