Manti Te'o: Mature beyond his years

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Manti Te'o: Mature beyond his years

Notre Dame fans, every single one of them, should take a moment and give thanks...to Charlie Weis.

For all of his shortcomings, and the sky-high expectations of a Knute Rockne-Lou Holtz dynasty that never happened -- or came close to happening while he was the head coach at Notre Dame -- Weis did bring one masterful prize to South Bend; a certain Heisman Trophy candidate that has helped put the Golden Domers back on the college football map.

All hail, Manti Te'o.

The senior linebacker is not your typical college football player, nor is he your average human being.

Te'o is special -- in the way he plays and thinks, walks and talks, lives and breathes.

That's one reason why Weis and former Notre Dame assistant Brian Polian made so many trips to Hawaii in 2008 and 2009 hoping to land Te'o, then the top defensive high schooler in the nation.

How many visits did they make?

"Too many," Te'o says with a laugh. "It was at the point where I told coach Polian, 'You don't have to come this often. You can just call me. You don't have to come and show up.' But it showed their dedication and it paid off. It really did pay off."

Certainly for Notre Dame. Not so much for Weis and Polian. They were fired after Te'o's freshman season in 2009.

Now three years later, Te'o is one of the best college players in the country, the Irish are undefeated at 9-0, and they are knocking on the door for a possible national championship -- what Weis and Polian were going after when they piled up all those miles flying across the Pacific Ocean.

"It would be the perfect ending to this great chapter in my life," Te'o says. "But national champions understand that it's one game at a time, one day at a time, getting better everyday. To think of that, and think of being known as a national champion at the end of the season, yeah it's a dream come true."

On the football field, Te'o plays like a valiant warrior, with a heart of a lion, undaunted by the chaos around him. Nothing scares him.

But what about off the field? What does he fear, if anything?

"I fear failure. That's my biggest fear is failure," he admits. "It's not being able to provide for my family. It's not bringing honor to my family. I don't fear anything else. I don't fear any individual. I just fear letting people down, and people that depend on me the most."

For Te'o, that's his family.

"My family is my prized possession," he says pointedly. "My family is everything."

But in September, Te'o lost two integral parts to his world. His grandmother and girlfriend passed away -- just six hours apart. His grandmother succumbed to cancer. His girlfriend died after a long battle with leukemia.

The depth of Te'o's grief is deep, and so is his mind, which exhibits the maturity and wisdom of a man twice or even three times his age.

"Although I may not be able to see them and hear them, I have faith that I will see them again," Te'o explains. "It paints this world in a whole different picture where you understand what life is really about. Yeah, football is great, all the winning is great, but at the end of the day we're all going to pass on, and what I'm going to take with me is who I am as a person, and all the lives I've had an impact on. I hope and pray everyday that I have an impact on somebody in a positive way."

Te'o is a religious man. He says his Mormon faith helped him overcome losing both loved ones so close to each other.

They might be gone, but he feels both women around him.

"All the time. I specifically sense my girlfriend around me whenever I say hi to another young lady. I feel somebody just saying, 'Who is that? Why are you saying hi?' But I sense them. I feel them whenever I'm alone. I'm feeling them telling me that everything is going to be OK."

If you were to break open Te'o's DNA, you would find all the necessary genes of a leader. He's a chief in the Notre Dame locker room and the commander of the defense. However, what makes Te'o an even greater leader is the humility he brings to his role as Notre Dame nobility.

"I think if you ask the good leaders, they won't acknowledge themselves as leaders," he says. "I don't acknowledge myself as a leader. I just acknowledge myself as somebody who's trying to win."

Te'o knows the name of every walk-on. How many college stars can do that? Or even name one?

And you can forget about being a macho football player. He has no reservations about expressing his love for his teammates.

"I know every one of my teammates. I know what they like, I know what they don't like, and as a leader of my team, I need to know that. I need to know that so I can relate to each of them," Te'o says. "If my guys can't trust me, if my guys can't love me, and I can't love them, we won't be very good. When you have that dynamic, having guys playing for the guy next to them instead of for themselves, special things start to happen."

They already have, thanks to Te'o.

And thanks to Charlie Weis.

He might be miles away in the rearview mirror, but the distance he and Polian flew to get Manti to Notre Dame is probably Charlie's greatest victory.

Te'o is proving that he's a winner every day of his life.

Fast Break Morning Update: Blackhawks give up season-high seven goals

Fast Break Morning Update: Blackhawks give up season-high seven goals

Here are some of Saturday's top stories in Chicago sports:

Five Things to Watch: Bulls visit Bucks in final regular season meeting on CSN

Jonathan Marchessault's hat trick leads Panthers rout of Blackhawks

Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’

White Sox: Carlos Rodon feels reassured after clean MRI

Marian Hossa named Blackhawks' nominee for 2017 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

Former Bulls center Joakim Noah suspended 20 games for violating NBA's anti-drug policy

Rule 5 pick Dylan Covey takes advantage of showcase as White Sox down Indians

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

2017 NFL Draft Profile: Illinois OLB Dawuane Smoot

Five Things to Watch: Bulls visit Bucks in final regular season meeting on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Bulls visit Bucks in final regular season meeting on CSN

Watch as the Bulls take on the Toronto Raptors tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Bulls Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Bulls.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Can the Bulls get one on the Bucks? The Bulls are 0-3 against the Bucks so far this season and it hasn't been pretty. The Bucks have won the previous three meetings all by double digits and by an average of 19 points. The youth and athleticism of the Bucks has been a tough matchup for the Bulls so far.

2. Containing Giannis. There may be no stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Bulls can at least try to contain him. Antetokounmpo is averaging 23 points and nearly nine rebounds per game. In three games against the Bulls this year he has averaged 29 points, 10 rebounds and 7.3 assists per contest. If the Bulls are to stay in the game, they will need to keep him to numbers lower than that.

3. Playoff implications. The Bulls playoff hopes are still alive with nine games remaining, but things are looking a bit bleak. The Bulls are a game and a half out of the eighth playoff spot, but only 3.5 games behind two teams tied for the No. 5 seed, the Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks. The Bucks have won three in a row to improve their position.

4. Mirotic on a roll. Streaky play is nothing new to Nikola Mirotic, but he's on a good run currently. After scoring a season-high 28 points on Wednesday against the Pistons, Mirotic followed that up with 15 points against the 76ers. Since missing three straight games earlier this month, Mirotic has scored in double figures in five of the last seven games and is averaging 15.6 points during that stretch.

5. Beginning of a tough stretch. The Bulls' playoff hopes could be made or broken in the next three games. After taking on the Bucks, which occupy a playoff spot, the Bulls host two more Eastern Conference playoff teams in Cleveland and Atlanta. The Bulls need to string some wins together and this is not an easy stretch to do so against.

- Check out the latest stats and standings to make sure you're ready for action

- Channel Finder: Make sure you know where to watch

- NBC Sports App FAQ: All your questions answered

- Latest on the Bulls: All of the most recent news and notes

- See what Bulls fans are talking about before, during and after the game with Bulls Pulse