Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, playing for the Fighting Irish despite a tragic week in his personal life, vaulted himself into the upper echelon of elite college football players, and led an inspired Notre Dame defense to a shocking 20-3 win over Michigan State at East Lansing.
Te'o lost his grandmother on September 11 and, barely 10 hours later, his girlfriend lost her battle with leukemia. But the senior, who passed up a chance to play in the NFL for another season at Notre Dame, stayed with the team and turned in the performance of his career against Michigan State.
Alumni like me know first-hand how the Notre Dame family can close ranks and rally around its members in their times of need. It can be a comfort, and a source of strength. Certainly that seemed to be the case this week with Te'o.
"He may be the perfect Notre Dame football player," Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. "As good as they come on the field. As good as they come off the field. He is what we look for in student athletes."
In this most difficult week, the other Notre Dame student athletes, and the extended Notre Dame family, on campus and around the world, lent their support.
"He's so strong for everybody, that when he was in a tough time, everybody wanted to help him out," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly marveled after the game. "I've never seen that kind of dynamic amongst a team and a group of players."
It was the Notre Dame defense that was questioned coming into the game with the Spartans. Michigan State hadn't allowed an offensive touchdown in its first two games, and the Irish had an inexperienced squad with true freshman filling key roles. But, with Te'o leading the way with 12 tackles, two pass breakups and an interception, Notre Dame's defense completely shut down highly-touted running back Le'Veon Bell. Bell was stuffed for just 77 yards rushing, forcing the Spartans to the air, where the Irish secondary was up to the task. Even an injury to veteran safety Jamoris Slaughter couldn't cause a crack in the Notre Dame pass defense.
But the night really belonged to Te'o. On national television, in prime time, he made a statement that he needs to be considered among the top players in all of college football. It was only once the play on the field was over that Te'o could reflect on his week.
"My family and my girlfriend's family have received so much love and support from the Notre Dame family," Te'o said. "Michigan State fans showed some love. And it goes to show that people understand that football is just a game, and it's a game that we play, and we have fun doing it. But at the end of the day what matters is the people who are around you, and family. I appreciate all the love and support that everybody's given my family and my girlfriend's family."
Times like these remind us why, despite a stretch of years when the record on the field has not been what we would like, Notre Dame remains a special place and a different kind of football program. Yes, we want to win. But we realize, too, that life is determined by so much more than the score.
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Rick Blaine, an award-winning broadcaster and columnist, holds two degrees from Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @RickBlaineCT.
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