For Te'o, Notre Dame legacy isn't complete

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For Te'o, Notre Dame legacy isn't complete

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Manti Te'o could've declared for the NFL Draft after his junior year and left Notre Dame with a nice legacy, remembered as one of the better linebackers to ever play for the school.
Part of the reason why he returned, though, was to experience senior day, to run out of the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium one last time to be greeted by his parents.
Te'o will get that chance on Saturday afternoon, when Notre Dame plays Wake Forest in its final home game of the 2012 season. But there was another motivating factor for Te'o to return after his junior year.
"He has unfinished business as it relates to this football team," coach Brian Kelly said on the outset of fall practice in August.
Three and a half months later, a 10-0 record and about all the national hype possible for a linebacker hasn't changed that motivation.
"Just hope we're playing sometime in January, that's our goal, that's the legacy that I'm looking at right now," Te'o said Wednesday. "Whatever is written while that's happening, so be it. But I'm just trying to do whatever it takes to make sure that my team is playing in January."
Truthfully, Te'o's already done enough to accomplish that goal. As the centerpiece of the best defense Notre Dame has seen in years, Te'o has led the charge to 10-0, and even if Notre Dame doesn't win out, a bid to a BCS bowl looks like a lock.
On top of that, Te'o has a legitimate chance to go to New York as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. He's a longshot to actually win the award, but given how rare it is for a defensive player to be named a finalist for college football's most prestigious honor, that's an accomplishment in itself.
It's also one Te'o isn't very interested in.
"I think when my name is being tossed around as a national champion, that's what I'm looking for," Te'o said. "You ask any Heisman winner that wasn't a national champion what they would rather be, and I think they would rather be the latter, a national champion.
"So that's what I want. I rather be holding a crystal ball than a bronze statue. That's just me."
Te'o is fond of saying that champions at Notre Dame become legends. Notre Dame may not have a shot at a national championship this year, despite Te'o's best efforts. There exists a possibility -- one that gets better with every Kansas State and Oregon victory -- that Notre Dame finishes the regular season 12-0 and gets shut out of the BCS Championship.
But this 2012 Notre Dame team won't soon be forgotten. The throngs of students who wore leis to Notre Dame's win over Michigan in September won't forget that experience, and that's just one example of many regarding Te'o's impact.
Te'o's legacy isn't just centered around his work on the football field. It encompasses him as a person, someone who dealt with tragedy with strength, someone who is serious about his work, someone who many view as a legitimate role model.
"He lives his life the right way," Kelly said. "He goes to class. He takes great care of himself off the field. He's a college student. He can laugh and have fun and be silly. He can be tough. He's just all that you would want in a young man as a college student and a representative of Notre Dame. He's a good student, fun to be around, and one darn good football player.
"So when that guy walks in and out of here every day, there is a mirroring effect and a trickle-down effect to the other players in the program that go 'I want to be like that guy.'"
Championship or not, Te'o's impact on Notre Dame will be felt long after he matriculates to the NFL. That's his legacy, and it's a pretty remarkable one at that for the linebacker from Laie, Hawaii.
"Once I leave here," he explained, "I hope that the impact I've made not only on the football field but in people's lives will forever be remembered."

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— Latest on the White Sox: All of the most recent news and notes.