CHESTNUT HILL — Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o is a Heisman Trophy candidate and an NFL prospect who is playing for the No. 3 college football team in the country. So when he came here to play against Boston College over the weekend, you would’ve thought he was sitting on top of the world.
But Te’o hasn’t been living the dream in his senior year with the Fighting Irish, who boosted their record to 10-0 with a methodical 21-6 triumph over BC onSaturday night.
The football part of his life couldn’t be any better; it’s the other 20 hours a day that Te’o often struggles with. It’s been that way since the early September day when his grandmother and his girlfriend died of leukemia within six hours of each other.
There is no statute of limitations on grief. Te’o continues to lean on family and teammates for support. And Te’o revealed after the BC game that when he really hit rock bottom in the hours after the death of two loved ones, he received extraordinary compassion from his head coach, Brian Kelly, the St. John’s Prep alum who is in his third season at Notre Dame.
“When I had my personal tragedy, he was the first one there for me,” Te’o said of Kelly. “He was there by my side, making sure I had all the help that I needed.
“To me, that’s the measure of the character of a man,” Te’o added. “He was a family member to me when it all happened. Coach Kelly was there for me in every way. He’s an incredible coach and an incredible man to me.”
A 21-year-old senior, Te’o wasn’t one of Kelly’s recruits coming out of Punahou High School in Hawaii; former Patriots assistant Charlie Weis was the Notre Dame head coach at the time, and he was battling 28 other schools to sign Te’o, who appeared to be ticketed for Southern Cal. Te’o changed his mind when he was in South Bend, Ind., on a day when the Irish were upset by Syracuse and Weis and the players were pelted with snowballs.
Weis was gone after yet another disappointing season in 2009, and perhaps Te’o and Kelly were just destined to help each other resurrect the program these last three years. Notre Dame is 10-0 for the first time since 1993, and if it beats Wake Forest on Saturday on Senior Day in South Bend, the 51-year-old Kelly will be the first ND head coach to be 11-0 since Lou Holtz in 1989.
Kelly, who grew up in Chelsea and was a backup on coach Fred Glatz’s St. John’s Prep teams in the late 1970s, is thriving at Notre Dame — even though it’s the ultimate fishbowl experience for a college football coach. At Notre Dame, you’re expected to win even when the talent level says you shouldn’t.
“There’s head coaches in college football and then there’s the head coach at Notre Dame,” Te’o said. “Those are two very different things. The pressure of expectations is incredible here, and he’s done a great job of handling that pressure and focusing on the things he needs to do to make us a better football team.
“Our success this year is a direct connection to our head coach and his ability to lead us. When Coach Kelly got here, I think he brought with him the fun of playing college football, the enjoyment of every moment in a game. He’s really level-headed with us. He loves his job, loves his players, and it shows. We all play for this guy.”
It’s fair to say that Kelly is an unprecedented position as a Notre Dame coach whose team could finish 12-0 and still be denied a spot in the national championship game. Irish coaching legends Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian and Holtz, among others, never had to worry about the BCS rankings. Kelly’s team could beat Wake Forest and USC, respectively, in the next two weeks and still finish behind Kansas State and Oregon in the final BCS poll.
Privately, Kelly and his players might seethe when they see Oregon and K-State score 60 or 70 points in a game. Publicly, they won’t say anything about it. When No. 1 Alabama lost Saturday night, the Irish didn’t dwell on it, even though it meant they would automatically move up to No. 3 (at the very least) with a win over BC.
“Style points are style points,” junior cornerback Bennett Jackson said, alluding to teams that run up the score. “We’re not caught up in that stuff. We couldn’t come out tonight and just be happy that another team (Alabama) lost. If we were thinking about that other stuff, we could’ve easily gotten off-track and ended up losing.
“Coach Kelly does a heck of a job of keeping those things in perspective. He brings a lot of energy to this group, a lot of character. He doesn’t let anybody on our team get too overwhelmed or too excited. He keeps reminding us about the task at hand.”
All-American tight end Tyler Eifert couldn’t have imagined that Notre Dame would be in the discussion for a national championship four years ago when he was recruited out of Fort Wayne, Ind., but now he insists he’s not surprised that the Irish are 10-0. It’s been a different philosophy under Kelly, he said.
“He’s brought a great discipline to this program,” Eifert said. “Coach Kelly unified this team when he got here. Not that we were a separated locker room before, but an offensive unit and a defensive unit can be (perceived) differently. With Coach Kelly, we’re just a whole team and we all rely on each other. And being (undefeated) is something the players talk about. It’s one of our goals and this is where we expect to be.”
Naturally, Kelly was asked about the possibility of Notre Dame playing in its first national championship game since 1988 after his team handled BC. With a powerhouse offense like USC still on his schedule, he would’ve been crazy to take the bait — so he didn’t. But you could tell that he really likes his team and the way it handles itself in the glare of the national spotlight.
“We’re going to work on winning against Wake Forest (Saturday) and take care of what we can take care and when all is said and done, we’ll see where we are,” Kelly said. “We can’t waste any of our energy on other stuff. We just have to focus on what we can do, and that is winning on the football field.
“If people don’t like us winning, I don’t know what else to tell you.”