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Friday, September 02, 2011

Te'o ready to embrace his next leap of faith

From the inside looking out, the swirl of opportunity and overwhelm about to hit Notre Dame junior linebacker Manti Te’o evokes — strangely, it would seem — a calm.

It almost comes off as naiveté, until you peel back the layers of who he is and discover this powerful spiritual strength that pervades everything he does and everything and everyone he touches.

"One thing I know for sure," he says, "one day we’re all going to pass. One day everybody’s going to leave this Earth. Whatever we have here we can’t take with us, except who I am as a person. And at the end of the day, that’s all that matters."

On this early June day, who Te’o is, is a mentor at the South Bend Center for the Homeless, a requisite part of a one-credit community service class with which Te’o and the majority of veteran Irish football players are kicking off their summers.

With him this day are Irish football teammates Everett Golson, Austin Collinsworth, Carlo Calabrese, David Ruffer, Luke Massa, Jamoris Slaughter, Lane Clelland, Aaron Lynch, and Irish men’s basketball player Mike Broghammer.

Inside the facility, that has so transcended the holding-tank image of a stereotypical homeless shelter and become a beacon of hope and opportunity in this community, the children ages 3 to 6 haven’t an inkling of the star power and potential the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Laie, Hawaii, product carries at Notre Dame Stadium, just a five-minute bus ride away.

But they gravitate to him anyway, like he’s a rock star.

One little girl, in particular, snuggles up to Te’o as the Center’s teacher pops in a DVD of "Finding Nemo" in what turns out to be a futile attempt to distract the kids and buy some time until the rain outside passes.

Some kids use Te’o as a jungle gym. Some just stare at his infectious smile. The little 5-year-old whom Te’o has nicknamed Pu Pu (loosely translated: treasure, jewel, precious) uses the burgeoning star to test out her dreams.

"I want to be a TV star," she says, showing off a smile that seems to sparkle even with two front teeth missing. "What do you think?"

Te’o tells her to dream big. In fact, when football ends someday, that is what the 20-year-old body with an old soul hopes to make his life’s work.

"I want to have some kind of impact on people," he said. "I told my dad (Brian), I don’t see myself sitting behind a desk. I want to help people. I want to build organizations that help athletes, that help children.

"One of the biggest things in Hawaii, that kind of hinders our youth, is that they feel that they can’t do things. They feel all they have is in front of them. They don’t realize there’s so much more out there in the world.

"I want to get through to them. I want to get through to as many as I possibly can, that, ‘Hey, you can do it. I’m an example there’s something bigger than what’s in front of you.’ That’s what I want to do."

What’s in front of Te’o now, though, is a big unknown. He came to Notre Dame as the most celebrated defensive prospect since Cincinnati Moeller linebacker Bob Crable, roughly three decades earlier.

But who is Manti Te’o about to become?


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