Choosing to attend Notre Dame, especially for the nation’s elite high school football players, is never an easy decision. For most of the top football prospects, it’s not close to any of the hot-bed states that typically produce high-profile recruits such as California, Florida, Georgia or Texas. Getting these young men to leave home for a small town in the midwest, when they have options from all over the country, good luck. In addition, the school’s academic requirements, both regarding initial enrollment, as well as the demands for student-athletes upon arrival, to put it simply, there are much easier roads to take.
However, Honolulu (Hawaii) Punahou linebacker Manti Te’o was up for the challenge.
Te’o, the nation’s No. 4 overall player in the 2009 class according to the 247Sports Composite Rankings, had over 30 scholarship offers coming out of high school. USC, Auburn, Nebraska, UCLA, Stanford, Texas A&M and many others were pushing for his services. In the end, Te’o shocked a lot of people and chose to attend Notre Dame. When he decided on the Fighting Irish, Notre Dame was wrapping up a 7-6 season including a 24-23 loss at home to Syracuse, a game Te’o was in town for during an official visit. In addition, Notre Dame went 3-9 the year before that. It’s not like the Irish were in great shape to land arguably the top high school football player that cycle because of their recent on-field success. Yet, when it came time to make a commitment, Te’o chose to take the difficult road. On Feb. 4, 2009, when most expected him to announce for the USC Trojans, Te’o committed to and signed with Notre Dame.
Irish Illustrated and 247Sports caught up with Te’o this week to look back at his decision to attend Notre Dame, the reasons behind that choice, how his life has been impacted since then, and how one assistant coach, Brian Polian, was extremely influential regarding his choice to leave home.
“It’s the same thing that I told Jaylon Smith when he was coming out of high school. You know, Jaylon and I missed each other, my senior year was his senior year in high school, but he and I grew very close in that time. The thing about Notre Dame is that you can’t really explain the place,” said Teo. “I think I encompass everything that is opposite of Notre Dame. I’m an island kid, I am all of the way in the pacific and Notre Dame is all of the way in the midwest. They have a winter at Notre Dame. It’s a Catholic institution and I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I’m not Catholic, but when I went there, I felt at home. They made me feel comfortable with my beliefs. They helped me grow in every aspect of my life. Notre Dame will always be home to me and so, for any kid that gets an offer from Notre Dame, I would go. I mean, I’m six years in the NFL, I would go. If someone there would offer me now, I would go. That place is special. I told Jaylon, you can go anywhere in the country and be a champ. You can go to Alabama, you can go to USC, you can go to Florida, and do all of these things and maybe one day become a champion, but if you win at Notre Dame, you become a legend. That’s the difference. Notre Dame carries so much weight and if you win there, you’re somebody special. I can’t thank Notre Dame enough for everything they’ve done for me and everything they continue to do for me and my family. It’s just an amazing place. It’s definitely home.
“Oh man, we’re close. He’s one of the biggest reasons why I went to Notre Dame,” added Te’o, regarding his relationship to this day with Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Polian, who was the primary recruiter for the five-star prospect. “Back when I was in high school, not a lot of people know but he was at my school basically every week when I was in Hawaii. For him to do that, it says a lot about how much they wanted me there. It definitely was a relationship that was built a long time ago, but it’s one that will last forever.”
While at Notre Dame, Te’o was a truly special talent. For his four-year career, he averaged 110 tackles per season, 9 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. In addition, during his final year in South Bend, he grabbed 7 interceptions. As a senior, Te’o won a ton of awards including a second-place finish in the voting for the 2012 Heisman Trophy. In addition, he earned the Maxwell Award, which is given annually to the College Football Player of the Year, the Lott Trophy, which is given to the College Football Defensive Impact Player of the Year, the Chuck Bednarik Award, which goes to the College Football Defensive Player of the Year, the Walter Camp Player of the Year, awarded to the College Football Player of the Year, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, given to the Best Defensive Player in College Football, the Butkus Award, which goes to College Football’s Top Linebacker, the Lombardi Award, which goes to the nation’s best linebacker or lineman, and was a Unanimous All-American.
This is part one of a multi-part series from the interview between Irish Illustrated and Te’o. More to come at IrishIllustrated.com.
***The Irish Illustrated team of Tom Loy, Tim Prister, Tim O’Malley, Jack Freeman and Kevin Sinclair is the most experienced group of journalists covering Notre Dame today. And that experience leads to coverage you can trust. We’re not going to tell you that everything is all right with the program all the time or that your concerns about the program are unwarranted. We’re also not going to dwell strictly on the negatives when there are positives to report. We are dedicated to providing you with the truth about Notre Dame football and recruiting. That is our job. Not all media outlets covering Notre Dame football do that. CLICK HERE to grab a FREE TRIAL to the No. 1 Notre Dame team and recruiting site around!