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Provo • Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly says linebacker Manti Te'o is the best leader he has come across in 22 years of coaching college football. Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick says he is a Heisman Trophy candidate on the field and a senior who embodies so perfectly all that Notre Dame stands for off the field that "it feels preordained."
But perhaps the biggest testament to the kind of person that Te'o is comes from Irish teammate Chris Badger, a former Timpview High star, who says that when Te'o notices someone eating alone in the dining hall at school, he invites them to join his group, athlete or not.
"He's got it all," Badger said. "He truly is everything that everybody says he is."
For BYU, which plays at No. 5 Notre Dame on Saturday (1:30 p.m. MDT, Ch. 5), Te'o is the one who got away.
In January 2008, all of Cougardom was familiar with the LDS prep phenom from Hawaii, and BYU fans and coaches were crushed when Te'o, after narrowing his choices to USC, BYU and Notre Dame, delivered the shocking announcement that, despite being a lifelong Mormon, he was rejecting the only college football-playing Mormon university in the country for the pre-eminent Catholic university in the land.
"We wanted Manti," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged. "We thought he was an excellent player. Heavy recruiting race. Had an official visit, saw everything that we had to offer, and [he] really didn't want BYU. So, certainly our evaluation [of him] as a player was right. He's very good."
Adding to BYU's pain was the fact that several of his family members told reporters prior to his official decision that he was leaning heavily toward BYU. Rumors abounded that something happened on his official visit that turned him away. However, Mendenhall said Tuesday he never felt like BYU had the edge. Nor did he ever get a reason from Te'o about why he rejected BYU.
"I don't ever think it was [certain] that he was heading here," Mendenhall said. "He chose to go elsewhere, and we wished him well, and that was it. I am glad to see he is having success."
In a teleconference Wednesday from South Bend, Ind., Te'o said the LDS community in Northern Indiana has been "very supportive ... very helpful," and he talked about why he chose Notre Dame.
"I prayed about it, and everything pointed towards Notre Dame," he said. "Notre Dame is where I came because I was directed to come here."
Now he's everybody's All-American, and No. 4 on ESPN's list of Heisman hopefuls. National sports radio talk show host Jim Rome tweeted Wednesday: "One of the most astonishing, inspiring conversations I've ever had with an athlete."
Several BYU coaches know all about that. Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman was in Te'o's home in Laie, Hawaii, the weekend before signing day, and remembers being "way disappointed, extremely disappointed" when Te'o picked a different school.
"He's a great kid and a great player," Doman said. "Notre Dame is fortunate to have him because he's a good leader and he's the type of young man that every team would like to have. So, yeah, it is unfortunate that we didn't get him."
Te'o said he has a cousin in BYU's program safety Jray Galea'i, who retired from football due to injuries and is now a student-assistant coach and friends on the team, but doesn't follow the Cougars on a weekly basis.
"For me it is just Game 7 [on the Irish's schedule]," he said.
Because of Te'o and other defensive stars such as Stephon Tuitt, Zeke Motta, Bennett Jackson and Matthias Farley, Notre Dame hasn't given up an offensive touchdown in a month. Te'o leads the team in tackles and fumble recoveries and is second in interceptions, with three. Swarbrick said Te'o is on track to join the list of former Notre Dame greats such as Joe Montana, Paul Hornung, Tim Brown and John Huarte.
Given BYU's offensive struggles, and inconsistent field-goal kicking, a shutout Saturday is a distinct possibility.
But don't expect Te'o to gloat. This is a guy who not only invites strangers to dine with him, but also makes a point of learning the names of every walk-on on the team.
"It goes back to when I was young," he said. "I never liked it when people were left alone or felt left out. Because I know how that felt. ... I never want somebody to feel that way. I never wanted somebody eating by themselves. [Walk-ons] are part of my team. They are part of my family. And if you are part of my family, I am going to try to get to know you, besides just your name."
On Notre Dame's campus, Te'o is as revered as basketball star Jimmer Fredette was at BYU. Some 20,000 students wore leis in a tribute to Te'o's Samoan and Hawaiian heritage during the game against Michigan last month after the linebacker's grandmother and girlfriend died within hours of each other.
That affection will be on full display again Saturday. This time, the Cougars will see it first-hand.
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o is a Hawaii native who nearly went to BYU before choosing the Fighting Irish. Some other Te'o tidbits:
• No. 4 on ESPN's Heisman Watch List this week.
• Leads the Irish in tackles and fumble recoveries and is second in interceptions.
• Is a candidate for the Bednarik, Nagurski, Lombardi and Butkus Awards.
• Named a midseason All-America First-Teamer by SI.com, CBSSports.com, others.
• Will likely be first player to lead Notre Dame in tackles for three straight seasons since Bob Crable in 1979-81.
• Tenth player in Notre Dame history to record more than 300 tackles in his career, currently fourth in school history with 383.
BYU at Notre Dame
P Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV • Ch. 5