NOTRE DAME — Manti Te’o’s path to Notre Dame was paved by snowballs and bake sales.
Years ago, before the accolades and the Sports Illustrated cover and ESPN documentary and the Heisman campaign, before fans at Notre Dame Stadium clad themselves in colorful leis and raised their hands in an opened-finger “five,” Te’o was a young football player in Manoa, Hawaii.
Every summer, his four sisters would cook and sell chicken, rice and lau laus — a traditional Hawaiian pork dish — for $6 or $7 a plate to send Te’o to summer football camps on the mainland.
“Everybody worked just to send me to go to football camps,” Te’o said. “To live my dream.”
Those camps and an award-winning high school career caught the eye of the collegiate recruiting world.
In 2007, Te’o was set on USC, his favorite team growing up, but he decided to visit Notre Dame for the Irish Senior Day game against Syracuse. He ventured east in a long-sleeved t-shirt and jean shorts only to be greeted with a South Bend snowstorm.
Te’o watched the Irish suffer an embarrassing loss to the Orange. He watched as Notre Dame fans pelted their own team with snowballs.
But something intangible stuck with the linebacker during his trip to South Bend. A vibe around campus, a collective sadness mixed with a spirit of pride and tradition.
“I think regardless of whether you win or lose, you can’t miss the spirit that’s around campus on a Senior Day here in Notre Dame,” Te’o said. “So I really felt that. I also felt just how sad it was. Not necessarily to lose the game, but to lose the game on what happened to be the last game for some of the players on that team.
“So amongst the cold and the snow and all that,” he continued, “I think the worst part of that was to see the pain in the players’ eyes as they were crying leaving the stadium, not because they lost, but because that was their last experience playing under the dome.”
Te’o shocked the college football world by choosing Notre Dame over USC, an oft-told story etched firmly into Te’o’s ever-growing legend in the program.
After three successful seasons with the Irish, Te’o was faced with the opportunity to play in the NFL.
But while playing professional football was his goal, it wasn’t his dream.
His dream was to make an impact on people. And he knew his journey at Notre Dame wasn’t finished.
“What I’ve learned is that people may not necessarily know your name or remember where you’re from, but they’ll definitely know how you made them feel,” Te’o said. “If I can make somebody feel important, make somebody feel included, I’ve always been like that since I was young. Make people feel that they’re a part of something instead of excluded.”
Te’o saw evidence of his impact in the wake of tragedy. On Sept. 22, just days after Te’o lost both his grandmother and girlfriend within hours of each other, nearly 80,000 people donning leis of support packed Notre Dame Stadium for the Michigan game.
In the moments after Notre Dame beat the Wolverines, Te’o vaulted into the stands while the Irish faithful waved their leis in solidarity.
There wasn’t a snowball in sight.
On Saturday, Te’o will slap the “Play Like a Champion Today” sign one final time for the Senior Day game against Wake Forest. He’ll run out of the tunnel and into the roars of an enamored fan base one final time.
His parents will greet him on the field. His sisters will be there, too, along with 40 other family members. He knows that experience alone was well worth putting the NFL on hold for a year.
“I had some teammates that ran out in full gear about to play and some that came out on crutches,” Te’o said of past Senior Days. “Each of them had the same expression on their face: Just joy. That’s something that money can’t buy. Money can’t buy that experience.”
Te’o’s story at Notre Dame doesn’t end Saturday, even though his playing career in South Bend does. The 10-0 Irish are still in the running for the national championship, something Te’o said would complete his journey more than the Heisman trophy.
“When my name is being tossed around as a national champion, that’s what I’m looking for,” he said. “So that’s what I want. I’d rather be holding a crystal ball than a bronze statue.”
Te’o is already extending his impact to Notre Dame’s potential recruits, future Irish he will never play with and may not ever meet.
“I tell them, ‘Hey, when you’re a champion at other schools, you’re a champion,” he said. “When you’re a champion at Notre Dame, you become a legend.’
“For me, it wasn’t hard for me to decide. We weren’t doing so well, and yet still there were talks about legendary status,” he said. “Just imagine if you’ve experienced a successful season what that would look like.”