I am a sports fan (particularly football, basketball and MMA). And I’m a Mormon. So naturally I also like to follow LDS athletes. I know it’s totally irrational, but when an LDS athlete does well, I perceive the Church as being just a little bit more true. Weird, I know, but I can’t help myself.
These past few months the LDS athlete I’ve been following the closest is Manti Te’o, a Mormon of Samoan descent from Hawaii who is in his senior year as an inside linebacker for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. And it has been a lot of fun. Every few days I check google news, and there are always new articles about him.
You know, we give lip service to praying over major life decisions, but this is something Manti has put into practice in a serious way. He always wanted to go play for USC, but his parents challenged him to make the decision which school to go to a matter of prayer and to abide by the answer. So he did, and the answer was to go to Notre Dame, something he didn’t expect, or even personally want. He hadn’t even known where it was, and his recruiting visit there was a complete disaster (he came underdressed during a bad snowstorm, and the team was terrible).
Manti was expected to bolt for the NFL and a contract worth millions of dollars after his junior year. Instead, he surprised everyone, even his own parents, by deciding to come back for his senior year. Trust me, this is a rare thing.
He has gotten better every year, and is now one of the best college players in the entire country. And he has helped to lead a resurgence in the football program; the team is now an undefeated 10-0 and ranked no. 3 in the country; it has been ages since Notre Dame was this relevant in the college football landscape.
But while I enjoy the football side, what I really appreciate about Brother Manti is his character. How he makes it a point to learn the names of all the walk-ons (virtually unheard of). How he walks around campus with a back pack over his shoulder just like any other student. (His design teacher said that if she didn’t already know he was a football player, she would have no clue from his comportment in class.) How he invites regular students to sit with him and other players in the cafeteria. How when he goes home he insists on going to all his sisters’ basketball games.
Earlier this semester, his maternal grandmother died of a long illness, and then six hours later his girlfriend died in California of leukemia. She had made him promise that if she didn’t make it he wouldn’t leave Notre Dame but would continue to play in her honor, and so as hard as it was that is what he did. Students came to the stadium wearing leis in his honor.
There are lots of stories about him and the way he treats others floating around. But my favorite is the story of Bridget Smith, at the time a dying 12-year old Catholic girl from suburban Detroit.
Manti didn’t know her or her family, but through a mutual friend he learned that they were going to remove the ventilator and that she would never leave the hospital. Bridget was a big Notre Dame fan (when she lost her hair she painted her bald head with the letters ND) and loved Manti. So he sat down and wrote her parents a letter. They received it and read the letter to their daughter, who then died a short time later. The girl’s mother said it was a bright spot on the saddest day of their lives. The letter was very personal and they have not released the text of it, but the mother read it to a reporter on the condition that he not quote it but just give a general characterization. He says it was hard to hear the letter read over the phone by the little girl’s mother. It was a personal, touching, graceful letter, in which he related his experience with his girlfriend to what they were going through. And it wasn’t short; if the e-mail were printed out, it would have been about two pages long. And it wasn’t something anyone put him up to; in fact, Notre Dame officials didn’t even know he had done it. This was not a PR gimmick, but him simply reaching out to a family that was hurting.
Shortly after this happened, I started my GD class by telling them the story. I knew it was a mistake, because I bawled like a baby trying to get through it, but it was worth it.
Manti never served a mission. I know some people think that a decision not to serve simply couldn’t be an answer to prayer. I disagree. The goodwill that Manti has generated for the Church is simply off the charts. 10,000 missionaries wouldn’t be able to accomplish what he has done in terms of people’s perceptions of the Mormon faith. (I find it particularly charming when he talks about “the heavenly father” in his press conferences.)
The story is ongoing, and I will be following the exploits of Brother Manti with interest. An undefeated season, lots of tackles, maybe another interception or two, if things fall a certain way perhaps even a national championship, that would all be nice. But I will in particular be watching how he lives his life, how he treats other people, how he represents his family, his school and his faith with impeccable honor.