SOUTH BEND — What unfolded on the ninth floor of Corbett Family Hall — the Notre Dame Stadium press box — early Saturday afternoon probably couldn’t have occurred anytime earlier.
Not five years ago. Or six. Or seven or eight. Definitely not 10 years ago when Notre Dame sailed through a magical regular season undefeated behind a certain middle linebacker from Hawaii and played to win a national championship for the first time since 1988.
Days after that long night in South Florida, the world as former Irish linebacker Manti Te’o knew it effectively ended. It was Jan. 16, 2013 — at 4:10 p.m. — when the Deadspin dropped the story outlining how Te’o’s “girlfriend” never really existed. What followed was, well, we know what followed.
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The jokes. The confusion. The whispers. The television interviews. The everything.
On Saturday, Te’o was on campus for the fourth time since he last played his last game, when he last raced out of the north tunnel of the stadium on Senior Day, that November 2012 afternoon. Four years earlier, he wore jean shorts — jorts — and sat in the stands on a brutally cold day that would see Irish players pelted with snowballs thrown from the student body in their home finale against Syracuse in 2008. He left the stadium early that day, spent four seasons as one of the game’s and program’s most dominant linebackers.
On Saturday, he was back and on the ninth floor to spend a few minutes with local media, really for the first time since his last game in a stadium that looked and sounded and felt differently than it did Saturday. Doing media was Te’o’s choice.
And it was awesome. Stand-up guy? For sure.
Still, why do it? Why not?
“Oh, yeah,” he said, tapping the table for emphasis. “I owe Notre Dame for everything. I owe this school everything, including you all. You’re all my friends.”
Not quite, but, the opportunity to talk with someone who should have nothing to say to anyone outside his inner circle was amazing. The hollow look on his face, the look Te’o carried for so many of the weeks and months and even years that followed the Deadspin story, that was long gone. He bounded off the elevator and down the back area of the press box with energy, greeting people to his left, making eye contact with people on his right, all while decked out in gold sneakers, jeans, a green shirt (naturally) and a green and blue hat.
“What’s up? What’s up?” Te’o asked everyone and no one in particular. “What’s up guys?”
The Te’o that we last saw in 2012? In 2013? In silly clear-the-confusion television interviews (Katie Couric)? That guy was long gone. The Te’o we saw Saturday was someone we – and he – deserved to see and be as his college career would slingshot into a professional career, one cut too short by ineffectiveness and injury.
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Why come back Saturday? For this game? For a team that entered the contest against California 0-2?
Easy. A native of Hawaii, Te’o always will be a Laie boy. That’s home. So is South Bend. So is that campus, where he became a man, where he became a Notre Dame man. Te’o was quick to say it again Saturday – Notre Dame is home because some of the best years of his life unfolded across the campus. Maybe the best.
In the stadium on Saturdays, sure. But down the street at the football facility. At the library. Talking with the food servers in South Dining Hall. Joking with the campus security officers. Walking back to his dorm in the freezing cold in the middle of winter. Far from home, far from loved ones. Where was his favorite spot? Hard to say. There were a lot.
“It’s always home,” Te’o said. “I don’t think there’s a place that’s not special. As far as the feel, it’s always the same, bro.”
Noter Dame, Te’o said, is his sanctuary. Was as a player. Now as a retired player. Forever will be as a person and whatever comes next in life for the 31-year-old.
All of what happened off the field during Te’o’s senior season? There wasn’t enough (any) time to dive deeply into that, at least not Saturday. Go read the stories. Go watch the two-episode Netflix documentary – Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.That offers plenty of explanation and answers.
Even before the documentary was pitched — and it needed Te’o’s participation to mean anything — he insisted Saturday he already was at peace with his life. What had happened in his senior year, when finished runner-up for the Heisman Trophy and won a truckload of individual awards. What happened off the field. What eventually happened in the NFL, when he slid to a second-round pick (No. 38 pick). When the game that seemingly had been so easy for him never really was as he played for three teams over eight seasons.
There was no reason to do that doc. Like with Saturday, Te’o did it.
“Honestly, I was a little anxious about it,” he said. “I was like, man, it was one of those things of, ‘I don’t want to talk about it again.’ All the facts are out there and I’m happy with it because it’s factual (so) let’s see how it does.
“Since Day One, it’s been nothing but positive.”
Speaking to the Irish on Friday, Te’o pushed a parallel to the rough waters that engulfed him and what Notre Dame had to navigate opening 0-2. Feel sorry for themselves? Better not anyone Irish feel that way around Te’o. He wouldn’t have any of it, not for the guys he referred to Saturday as “the boys.”
“Man, that’s life,” said Te’o, who knows that better than anyone. “That’s the greatest thing about football, that’s the greatest parallel to life. It’s going to start off the way you wanted it to. Keep going.”
It was funny to see a university-issued lanyard and credential hanging off Te’o’s neck. Like, he really needed to be identified. He could go anywhere he wanted in that building, on that campus. Who was going to stop him from going anywhere he wanted to go?
It’s been 10 years and life has taken so many twists and turns, but he’s still freaking MANTI TE’O.
One place Te’o really wanted to go at least, one more time was down the stairs from the Irish locker room, out the tunnel and onto the playing surface. Just once more. Maybe race around in space and make tackles, like he did against Nevada in his first collegiate game when people first learned about this Te’o kid in the No. 5 jersey. When the game slowed down and he realized — even against an overmatched opponent — that he could be without peer on the football field.
For most of his career, he was.
Just one more snap. One more rep. One more time when he could make a play.
Te’o said he’d give everything — everything besides his wife (Jovi) and their one-year-old daughter and a son that’s on the way — to put on the pads, to put on that jersey, one more time.
“I miss the game; I miss playing the game,” he said. “I miss the Chess match that football is for me. I miss the plane rides. I miss the conversation with guys. I miss all of that.”
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We could’ve spent hours with Te’o on Saturday, and he probably would’ve enjoyed it. He was comfortable. He was relaxed. He was loose. He wasn’t nervous or wary or anything that he should be given what he’s been through. But even those eight measly minutes were enough, and when they were up, he was off to his next stop.
Kickoff was nearly 90 minutes away, but it already had been a busy morning, a busy afternoon, a busy weekend for one of the program’s greats. Off Te’o went, to experience another gameday on campus, to live his life. Football no longer is a part of it but even without it, it’s still a good life.
A good life after proving that you can go through hell — and he did — and emerge from the other side with something he was quick to show Saturday.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.