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On Sept. 12, three days before Notre Dame played Michigan State, the parents of Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te'o woke him up with a 7 a.m. phone call from Hawaii: His grandmother, 72-year-old Annette Santiago, had died, of natural causes. Six hours later, while standing at his locker, Te'o got a call from his girlfriend's older brother, Koa, who sobbed, "She's gone."
Te'o had dated Lennay Kekua, 22, for nearly a year. She'd been hospitalized in California since an April 28 car accident left her on the brink of death. Two months after the accident, as she began to recover from her injuries, doctors discovered that she had leukemia and sent her to a new hospital with another daunting health issue.
As Lennay struggled to survive, Te'o developed a nightly ritual in which he would go to sleep while on the phone with her. When he woke up in the morning his phone would show an eight-hour call, and he would hear Lennay breathing on the other end of the line. Her relatives told him that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice.
Te'o was devastated by the double dose of bad news, but he insisted on practicing that afternoon and addressed the team beforehand. "This is my family," he recalls saying. "I love each and everyone one of you. My girlfriend always told me, 'Send roses while they can still smell them, tell people you love them while they can still hear.'" Notre Dame fans donned tens of thousands of leis on Saturday to show support for Te'o, heeding his advice without having heard it. They know who is most responsible for the team's return to the top 10 for the first time since 2006.
In the wake of the deaths, Te'o had 12 tackles as the Irish dominated Michigan State 20--3. One week later, on the day of Lennay's funeral service, he picked off two Denard Robinson passes and forced two other interceptions as Notre Dame beat Michigan 13--6 to go 4--0.
Off the field, Te'o, who is part Samoan, is just as valuable to the team. He's helped create a culture of uso, a Samoan word for brotherhood, in the Notre Dame locker room. "Someday, when we are there holding up that crystal ball," says Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick, alluding to the BCS trophy, "I want Manti to be here with us because the role he has played in leading us from where we were to where we are going has been indispensable."
Te'o graduated from Barack Obama's high school, practices Mitt Romney's religion and has postfootball career goals similar to Tim Tebow's. Named after a warrior in The Book of Mormon, he has an affinity for Pacific Ocean cliff jumping and endures the icy Midwestern winters by wrapping a towel around his face or walking backward into the wind.
He is the most recognized student on campus, known for greeting everyone—cooks, walk-ons and dorm neighbors—by name. "You never know what kind of impact you can have on someone," he says, "by just saying hello." If Te'o sees a student sitting alone at dinner, he'll invite him to his table. And he poses for so many pictures with other students that his teammate, roommate and best friend, wide receiver Robby Toma, refers to himself as "Manti's cameraman."
"There's a lot of emphasis on greatness on this level," says Father Paul Doyle, the rector of Dillon Hall and Te'o's former dorm neighbor, "but Manti is also focused on goodness."
The Tao of Te'o may best explain how he ended up in South Bend, a town that's closer to Madrid than to his hometown of Laie on Oahu. There were no geographic or religious reasons for Te'o to go to Notre Dame. He grew up dreaming of playing for USC, home of his idols Junior Seau and Troy Polamalu. By his sophomore year at Honolulu's Punahou School he was yelling at opponents for running away from him on every play. As a senior he led Punahou to its first state title and was considered a top 10 recruit and the best linebacker in the class of 2009. He was so sought after that dozens of coaches, including USC's Pete Carroll and Stanford's Jim Harbaugh, trekked to Oahu to see him, and UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel jumped fully clothed into the Pacific off a 30-foot cliff near Te'o's home to impress him.