Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Notre Dame Students Rally Around Te'o

There are 2,059 freshmen trying to find their way on the expansive 1,250-acre University of Notre Dame campus this fall.

And, then, there is Manti Te'o, who has already been wholeheartedly embraced by it.

"We love the guy," said Grant Schmidt, the student body president.

"He's practically a legend with the students," said Brian Hardin, the school's football information director.

To watch the student section's response to his play in yesterday's 37-30 overtime victory over Washington, where he was the second-leading tackler with 10, was to witness a remarkable Tweet-age love affair between the hard-hitting former Punahou School linebacker and students hopeful he can help revive the proud winning tradition at college football's most storied school. "We haven't seen anything like it since we've been here," head coach Charlie Weis said.

The students in Notre Dame Stadium's northwest end might not be able to pronounce his first name, but they know "Manti from Hawai'i" and have rallied around him as a symbol of what Irish defense can become.

When Te'o arrived on campus this summer, termed the school's best recruit at linebacker since Bob Crable in 1978 by a national recruiting analyst, the student paper, The Observer, headlined it, "The Manti Commeth."

Just the prospect of the 6-foot-2, 244-pound Te'o, who was heralded as the top high school defensive player in the nation last season by USA Today, coming to play beneath the Golden Dome had an energizing effect on the student body. It hatched a plan to hand out 8,000 plastic lei the November weekend he was to take his recruiting visit last year. But school officials, nervous the move could invite NCAA sanctions, scotched the plan.

No matter, the students shouted their interest in him from the bleachers even as they were lobbing snowballs at the coaching staff and players during the team's loss to downtrodden Syracuse. Yet, on national letter of intent day, students watching ESPN and on the internet were jubilant that Te'o not only reversed the trend of 11th-hour big name signing day losses but snubbed rival USC in doing it.

Then, in the season opener, Te'o laid on a couple of big, validating hits that they have come to call "the full Manti." "From his tackle on his first play, the entire student section was behind him," said Matt Gamber, sports editor of the campus paper. "He showed very quickly he belonged with his speed and big-hitting ability, and I think the fact that we haven't seen a ton of him on a consistent basis just yet only adds to the mystique, if you will, surrounding him."

From that time, fans have joined the students in clamoring for more playing time for their hero. "Increase the dosage of Manti," a letter writer to the student paper implored. "More Manti," the internet postings demand.

On a largely white campus where "Hawaiian Oasis Authentic Shaved Ice" passes for exotic, "I also believe that the fact that he is (from Hawai'i) adds a lot of allure to him," said Kevin Doyle, a student.

Notre Dame does not make freshmen available for interviews the first part of the season, but teammates say Te'o has handled the attention surprisingly well. "You'd expect someone like that, who has been told for years that he's the greatest thing since sliced bread, to be a little arrogant," said cornerback Mike Anello. "But he is the antithesis of what of what you'd expect from a kid like that. He's down to earth and has worked his tail off since he got here and I like that about him."

When it was over last night, the victory against Washington sealed, Te'o raced to the end zone and waved to family members and the student section. Already, they have become like family, too.

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