On September 15, the Fighting Irish upset tenth-ranked Michigan State to improve to 3-0. Notre Dame’s 13-6 victory was predicated upon their smothering defense, led by senior All-American linebacker Manti Te’o. The Hawaii native led the defense with an all-universe performance, registering 12 tackles, two pass breakups, a fumble recovery and a sack.
While Te’o’s performance was impressive, it was even more incredible in light of his week leading up to the game. On the Tuesday evening prior to the matchup, his maternal grandmother passed away in Hawaii after a lengthy illness. Six hours later, his girlfriend Lennay lost her battle with leukemia.
The Irish coaching staff encouraged him to fly home to be with his family, but Te’o said "I want to be with my guys." He later confessed that he had also promised Lennay that he wouldn’t miss a game if she passed away. Incredibly, he didn’t even miss a practice that week. As Te’o and the Irish warmed up on the field for the game, his girlfriend was laid to rest.
Te’o dedicated the Notre Dame-Michigan State game to his girlfriend and grandmother. "That was for them," Te’o said after his spectacular performance. "For my girl and my grandmother … I lost two women that I truly loved. But I had my family around me. I had my football family around me.”
An elite athlete must possess incredible mental toughness. When faced with personal tragedy, most individuals are unable to maintain the focus necessary to perform at the level at which they are accustomed. However, there are some rare athletes who are still capable of exceling in such situations. It’s not a case of blocking out or forgetting about the tragedy, but using those difficult circumstances as motivation to elevate their game. “[Football] is a great escape,’’ Te’o explained after the victory. “But I’ll be honest: Throughout the game, you still think about it. But football allows me to just be in a realm, in a little world where I can just honor them by the way I play.” Against Michigan State, Te’o proved that he was one of those unique athletes.
Three weeks after Te’o’s girlfriend and grandmother died, he read about a 12-year old girl from the Detroit suburbs with terminal brain cancer named Bridget Smith. Doctors told her parents that their daughter only had a few months to live, but she managed to battle the disease for three more years. Bridget was a huge Notre Dame and Manti Te’o fan. Despite struggling with his own grief, along with the pressure of leading an undefeated football team, Te’o decided to write an email to Bridget’s parents. “I’m a knucklehead sometimes, but if I can have an impact on somebody’s life in a positive way, I’m going to do it. I’m always looking to serve somebody. It just goes back to what my parents taught me,” he said.
The Smiths received the email on the day that they planned to remove Bridget from the ventilator. Although she was unconscious, they read her the letter. “We opened that letter that morning, and it was just a bright spot on the saddest day of our lives,” Bridget’s mom said. The heartfelt and selfless act revealed the same character that Te’o has displayed on the field all season.
Te’o’s incredible made-for-Hollywood story didn’t end with the Michigan State game. As the season progressed, the Irish continued to reel off victories and climb in the BCS standings. Against Oklahoma, Te’o’s 11 tackles helped hold the team’s high-octane offense to only 15 yards rushing.
The pressure mounted to complete the season undefeated. While other top-ranked teams, like Oregon, Alabama and Kansas State cracked under the strain and lost. However, Manti wasn’t going to allow the Irish to lose down the final stretch. There was no greater stress than that which Te’o had already endured earlier in the season.
In their final game, the Irish faced long-time rival USC. A victory would send Notre Dame to the national championship game for the first time in two decades. While the Trojans were unranked, they had a long history of ruining Notre Dame’s national championship hopes. USC knocked the Irish from contention in 1938, 1964, 1970, and 1980 with victories in in the final game of the season.
In one of Notre Dame’s most physical battles of the season, the Irish beat the Trojans 22-13. As expected, Te’o led the team to victory with a stifling defense. He intercepted USC’s quarterback in the third quarter and single-handedly stuffed the Trojan’s running back only four yards from the end zone. Te’o and the Irish defense held USC scoreless twice on goal-line stands in the fourth quarter.
The USC win capped Notre Dame’s undefeated regular season. Unranked when the season began, most experts predicted that the Fighting Irish would finish 8-4. With a lackluster offense ranked 75th in points scored and featuring rotating quarterbacks, there’s no doubt that the Irish wouldn’t be going to the national championship game in January without their Manti Te’o-led defense.