Monday, August 20, 2012

His message is loud and clear

By Mark Lazerus 648-3140 or August 18, 2012 11:39PM

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o answers a question during NCAA college football media day, Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012 in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)
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SOUTH BEND — Manti Te’o tried. Really, he did. Notre Dame’s All-America linebacker spent parts of last season jumping up and down in the huddle, smacking helmets, yelling in faces and grabbing facemasks.

No matter how forced it felt — and no matter how awkward it looked — he tried, because, well, that’s what leaders on football teams do.

“I tried to be all rah-rah,” Te’o said, grimacing at the very thought of it. “I’m just not that type of dude.”

Turns out, he doesn’t have to be. Turns out, when you’re one of the top linebackers in the country, your teammates will follow you. Turns out, when you’re one of the hardest-working guys on the team, your teammates will emulate you. Turns out, when you’re the type of dude that turns down a shot to be a first-round NFL draft pick for one last year in college, your teammates will believe in you.

And it turns out, when you don’t say much, your words carry that much more weight.

“I was out there being in everyone’s face, and guys don’t respect that,” Te’o said. “They could see right through it. I want my teammates to understand that when No. 5 says something to you, that means it’s very important, because he doesn’t talk a lot. If I’m saying something to you, it’s going to help you.”

Irish coach Brian Kelly has seen the difference.

“Without question, it’s now at a point where he is imposing his own set of standards on others,” Kelly said. “He holds his teammates to a high level, and as a coach, that’s a pretty good feeling.”

Te’o said he got his “speak softly and carry a big stick” mentality from his father, Brian.

“I think it’s a Polynesian thing,” the native of Hawaii said. “We’re very quiet people. We’re hard working, but we’re very quiet. My dad is one of the best leaders I’ve seen. People follow him, people listen to him. When he speaks, everyone listens. I didn’t want to be one of those guys that, when I speak, everyone just rolls their eyes and says, ‘Oh, it’s the same old Manti, same old things.’ When I speak, it’s different. When I speak, you’ll feel it.”

Better to hear from him than get hit by him, because you’ll feel that for a lot longer. Te’o, one of the most highly touted defensive recruits in Notre Dame history, has lived up to the hype. He’s played in every game since joining the program, and has started the last 35. He’s eighth all-time in tackles, was named to six All-America teams last year, and was a finalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker, last year. This year, he’s a consensus first-team preseason All-American and the unquestioned — if unassuming — leader of the defense.

But to hear Te’o tell it, it’s not nearly enough.

“He has unfinished business as it relates to this football team,” Kelly said.

A pedestrian 22-16 career record at Notre Dame and a 1-1 record in bowl games (neither of them BCS bowls) helped fuel Te’o’s wrenching offseason decision to spurn the NFL and risk millions of dollars for a chance to carve a greater legacy in South Bend — and to spend one last year with his “family” at Notre Dame.

It also added fire to his grueling offseason workouts, which he said cut about 15 pounds off his 255-pound frame, leaving him quicker and more powerful than ever.

His goals are simple, and lofty: To go down as “one of the best” to ever don a golden helmet, to lead Notre Dame back to national prominence, and to “cherish the moment.”

The NFL can wait.

“Me coming back wasn’t to prove how I gave everything up, it was to show how special this place is,” Te’o said.

“No second-guessing. None. I knew if I prepared myself both physically and spiritually, I’ll be fine. Whatever happens, happens. I told my parents, after my last home game, against Wake Forest, whether I come out in pads or on crutches, it’ll be worth it.”

That, Te’o hopes — as much as the relentless dedication to workouts, to film study, and to delivering bone-rattling hits — will speak louder than any generic, ear-splitting pregame pep talk ever could.

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