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Manti Te'o: A Retrospective on the Leader of Notre Dame

The first thing you might be asking yourself right now is, "Why write a retrospective on a kid who will be playing another season at Notre Dame?"

That's a fair question---as there certainly will be plenty of these written this time next year and into the beginning months of 2013 when Te'o's collegiate career is finally over.

However, the reason for a retrospective on Manti Te'o right now is that his decision to return is going to be a major part of his legacy at Notre Dame.

The cynics out there will say that Fighting Irish fans are just happy because the All-American linebacker coming back means a better team and likely more wins in 2012. That's fine, there's no need to argue that point.

Still, there is more to the story than that, and there's more to Te'o and his story than just playing football and winning on the field.

Simply put, Te'o means more to the University of Notre Dame and her fans across the country than your typical superstar college football player.

He's unique and undoubtedly a special person---someone who never seemed destined in the least bit to attend Notre Dame. Yet, here he is, with millions of NFL dollars dangling in his face, trying so desperately to make the impact of 50 or 100 men in South Bend, Indiana.

It's this effort from Te'o that has Irish fans themselves in turn so desperately wanting to see Notre Dame win more than usual specifically because the team is being led by this wonderful kid from Hawaii.

He's turned the natural order of things on its head.

While Te'o, his teammates, and coaches may feel like they are letting down Notre Dame and its fans when they lose, there's this alternative sense that Notre Dame is letting Te'o down as well.

Typical refrains may be, "Why didn't the players execute better?" or "Why did the coach make this boneheaded call?"

With Te'o, I often find myself lamenting the fact that he's been on Irish teams that are merely 22-15 since he arrived---despite his high level of play at a position of great need.

It's not that Te'o is bigger than Notre Dame though. It's that, well...he deserves better.

If there ever was a player who was to lead the Fighting Irish back to the Promised Land, Te'o looks and feels like the one to do it now that we've gotten to know him since 2009---but that hasn't been the narrative through three years.

And since the narrative has largely been more of the same for post-Holtzian Notre Dame football, there's this angst, melancholy, even bitterness, that Te'o's decision to come to South Bend hasn't delivered on the field in terms of team success.

However, a return for his senior year is another chance to hope.

Signing Day Surprise & Rise to Stardom

It doesn't seem that long ago that Te'o had those three hats in front of him: USC, UCLA, and Notre Dame.

Most expected him to pick the garnet and gold cap, and why not? USC was a national powerhouse and had great success in recent years recruiting the best Polynesian players in the country. It was assumed that Te'o would want to stay close to home on the West Coast and play for national championships as a Trojan.

When he ultimately picked Notre Dame it sent a shock wave through college football.

Manti Te'o picked Notre Dame?

The team with Charlie Weis as coach?

The team with a struggling defense?

The decision might have left many perplexed, but it flamed those Return to Glory™ dreams for Notre Dame fans.

As a true freshman Te'o was ready to play---making a couple bone-crushing tackles in the season opener against Nevada while seeing significant minutes. He didn't start his first two games in 2009, but has started every game since now at 35 straight.

In the midst of perhaps Notre Dame's worst defense in school history, Te'o was one of the few bright spots. He finished with 63 tackles (the third most ever by a freshman Irish defender) and showed glimpses of his immense talent and potential.

With the firing of Charlie Weis there was some concern over whether Te'o would stick around or have second thoughts about staying at Notre Dame following such a turbulent freshman season. But like a warrior, he has seen through his pledge to the University.

Last year as a sophomore, Te'o had one of the finest seasons ever for a linebacker in blue and gold with 133 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss. He had finally arrived in full on the college scene.

This season there were very high expectations for Te'o and the Irish, but neither could quite live up to them. Manti fought through a high ankle injury for most of the season, saw his overall tackle numbers dip slightly, but added a career-high 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.

With the overblown Twittergate controversy and most experts tabbing Te'o as a first round pick in the NFL, it was assumed by many that the upcoming Champs Sports Bowl against Florida State would be Manti's last at Notre Dame.

But just like his signing day surprise, Te'o took the unexpected path and announced his plan to return to Notre Dame this past Sunday night.

Te'o as Notre Dame's Savior

In the past many players were viewed as probable saviors of Notre Dame football---with most of them playing the glamorous and attention-grabbing position of quarterback.

When Ron Powlus came to South Bend, the Irish were already half a decade removed from the school's last national title. Despite a very solid career and numerous passing records, Powlus' teams never reached the pinnacle at Notre Dame.

Brady Quinn arrived another half decade later and seemed to be the savior built by Hollywood. But his career didn't take off until he was an upperclassman and the Irish couldn't quite climb the mountain top.

On the heels of Quinn, came the hype and potential of Jimmy Clausen. Yet, even with numerous school records, Clausen's teams were mired in the very essence of mediocrity before he left early for the NFL.

The latest hero was to be Dayne Crist---a player who was sort of the antithesis to Clausen in many ways. Surely the Irish would strike gold with one of its leaders and have him take the team to the Promised Land.

Just look at his last name! He has to be the one to win that elusive national title for Notre Dame!

Alas, it was not meant to be as Crist suffered through injuries and quarterback controversy before seeking a transfer earlier this month.

And then there is Manti Te'o.

In many ways he's a lot like Dayne Crist: humble, physically imposing, and a near-perfect representative for the University of Notre Dame.

In many other ways he's very different: A Mormon from Hawaii who isn't playing the role of golden-armed quarterback, but rugged middle linebacker.

Can Te'o be the savior and leader of Notre Dame?

Is it fair to heap that pressure upon him?

Will his senior year be deemed a failure without a national title---or even a BCS bowl victory?

I'm sure Te'o doesn't view success and failure through such a narrow lens like that, but it would be nice to see that breakthrough come during his senior season.

When staring off into space and thinking about the future of Notre Dame and wondering if I'll ever see a national title in my adult life, I can't help but think that it would be somehow fitting that the Irish would make it happen in the most unlikeliest of seasons with a most unlikely leader.

The 2012 schedule has looked as fierce as any in recent years, while the program will be losing two corners, a safety, one linebacker, one defensive end, two offensive linemen, and perhaps the school's greatest wide receiver after the Champs Sports Bowl.

If there was a year to win a title, 2012 it probably won't be. Not with those graduation losses and another quarterback controversy coming up in the spring and fall.

And although Manti Te'o doesn't seem like an unlikely hero now that he's lived up to the hype and inches closer to 400 career tackles, remember, he wasn't supposed to come to Notre Dame in the first place.

You never would have believed me five years ago that a kid from Hawaii with a funny accent would lead Notre Dame to a title as a linebacker.

How fitting it would be for Te'o to be able to be the player to lead this team to real glory. God knows this fan base has been patient over the past 15 years waiting for it, but Te'o is the type of person who deserves that type of reverence and success under the Golden Dome.

Ultimately, if it doesn't happen we will just have to live with that like we always do. It will be another disappointment among the many over the years with this program.

Either way, we should be proud and happy that Te'o decided to come back for his senior year and make an impact on this community both on and off the field.

We should be proud that he's done it for all the right reasons too.

When told by his sister that the NFL was his dream and that he should leave, Te'o responded:

The NFL is my goal, not my dream. My dream is to have an impact on people. I think I'm doing that, and I'm not finished yet. All the trips to the pediatric hospital, to the Homeless Center. I'm not done yet.

What more can you ask of your 250 pound All-American linebacker?

Te'o has given the fans hope for a better 2012 season on the football field, but it is the reasoning for his return and it's terribly sincere nature that will leave a giant legacy at Notre Dame.