Brother Manti

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.


  1. Amen, Kevin.

    Manti is an amazing person, and listening to him talking with the media is hard to describe. To be as good as he is on the field (a serious Heisman candidate while playing defense) but be a much, much better person and so incredibly humble . . .

    I am old enough to have been a huge Dale Murphy fan, so saying that Manti Te’o is my favorite Mormon athlete in my lifetime is saying something.

  2. Manti has made me actually root for Notre Dame, which is something I never thought possible.

  3. His first Sunday in South Bend was interesting. Several pre-deacon aged boys wanted him to sign his scriptures or something like that. This was obviously inappropriate, but he seemed unsure on how to deal with paparazzi in church. After that, he seemed to try to be invisible at church. It made me think of the goal of equality temple clothing and behavior has, and how he seemed to try and accomplish that among the challenge of notoriety.

  4. You “bawled like a baby”? So much for masculinity. Religion really does produce beta chumps.

  5. I have just been reading about Jerramy Stevens and thinking horrible thoughts about football players, so it was nice to read about Manti and know that there are honorable players out there.

  6. Mephibosheth says:

    I would pay exorbitant amounts of money to see #4 say that to KB’s face.

  7. It won’t be a true Mormon Sports Story until Notre Dame’s bowl game is scheduled on a Sunday and Manti has to endure the initial scorn and derision of coaches, fans, and teammates when he announces he won’t play. However, at least one teammate will be so inspired that he will be baptized.

  8. Ha, Casey FTW!

  9. Yeah, Casey, the irony of that would be delicious, since all of the NFL games are played on Sunday. I have no problem whatsoever with that career, but I would like to see the mental gymnastics some of my fellow saints would use to applaud both missing a bowl game and then making a living in the NFL.

  10. Joseph McKnight says:

    Kevin, Almost thou persuadest me to call football a sport now. However, I still can’t quite fathom how attempting to smash another human being can be so . . . sporting?

  11. it's a series of tubes says:

    As opposed to the “sport” of, say, fox hunting?

  12. I heard Manti on the Jim Rome Show a while ago. He was incredible. That show isn’t always the easiest interview, but he held his own with such class and maturity beyond his years.

  13. Meldrum the Less says:

    Sometimes when LDS athletes are winning it makes me feel a little bit like the church ISN’T true.

    The BYU football team beat my favorite GA Tech a few weeks ago. The BYU defense stopped the Ga Tech triple offense that was averaging over 40 points a game and scored 68 points last week. Even though I wanted Ga Tech to win after a good game, I felt that BYU was earning some serious respect among the Ga Tech fans.

    Late in the third quarter when the game was all but lost, Ga Tech put in their back-up quarter back. BYU players launched a series of cheap shots that I found astonishing. Some of them had the potential to permanently injure the players. I know that quite a bit of trash talk on the field can provoke this kind of response. I can understand but do not condone this type of behavior when a team is losing. But when winning? Most of the stadium emptied out except the BYU fans. Who wanted to see a bunch of cheaters win like that?

    At the end of the game the BYU players and fans celebrated their victory. The daunting Ga Tech offense had been shut out, and the defense had allowed about 50 points. Both were humiliated. As is customary in the South after football games, the coaches and team “take a knee in prayer.” As I watched this unfold, I was ashamed to have anything to do with BYU.

    Many of you might be aware of a video of a brawl involving several BYU football players in a Provo fast food joint late Halloween night. More disturbing than big dumb guys throwing punches, more disturbing than hitting guys being constrained and defenseless, even more disturbing to realize most of them don’t actually know how to street fight and are going to get a real ass whooping if they ever pulled this sort of a stunt around her, was the obvious knock-down punch in the face of a girl waitress working there and trying to get them to stop. She was still crying on the floor when it ended. I almost threw up. (Google: BYU football brawl)

    Two players were suspended and face criminal charges. More should follow. BYU football is often hated by their opponents and not entirely because of their skill or strength. Cheap shots on the field. Cheap shots off the field. I can only be thankful that lowering the missionary eligibility age will bring BYU football to its knees.

    As for the “sport” of football in general, I wish to share with you what my beastly my son told the high school football coach when he asked him why he didn’t try out for the team: “I have better things to do with my head than hit other people with it.”

  14. @Meldrum: I’m not sure you’ll find a football team in the country that doesn’t engage in the occasional “cheap shot”, especially as perceived by opposing fans. That’s just how it goes when you get a bunch of dudes playing a violent sport, for better or worse. Wouldn’t say it reflects much about BYU’s program (public brawls, on the other hand…)

    @ tubes 11…your comment reminded me of this:

  15. it's a series of tubes says:

    Many of you might be aware of a video of a brawl involving several BYU football players in a Provo fast food joint late Halloween night. More disturbing than big dumb guys throwing punches, more disturbing than hitting guys being constrained and defenseless, even more disturbing to realize most of them don’t actually know how to street fight and are going to get a real ass whooping if they ever pulled this sort of a stunt around her, was the obvious knock-down punch in the face of a girl waitress working there and trying to get them to stop. She was still crying on the floor when it ended. I almost threw up. (Google: BYU football brawl)

    30 seconds in.

    The coward who hit the girl unprovoked deserves significant jail time. Hope she brings a civil action against him also and collects a boatload of cash.

    Also, as you mentioned, not a single person on that video knows how to handle themselves in a street fight. Pathetic.

  16. Drake Perry says:

    Re: #5 Jerramy Stevens was also raised LDS. His bishop even wrote letters on his behalf after an ugly early assault incident in which he and another high school student beat a classmate with a metal bat and stomped on his face.

  17. You’re a lucky guy in that between Manti and Jabari Parker, you all in the Chicago area have some top flight Mormon athletes to cheer for.

  18. Re: #16. I’m from the area and a die-hard Husky and Seahawk fan and I’ve never heard that rumor before. I’m curious what your source for that is?

  19. Ugly Mahana says:

    Meldrum, I don’t get the point of your comment in context of this post. Are you saying that Manti Te’o must be as low as the brawling BYU scum just because he is Mormon?

  20. Bluegrouse says:

    Just Monday of this week I read the weekly missionary letter of my cousin’s son with whom I am a friend. He is serving in Indiana. He was send on splits with another missionary out of his area. They called the ward mission leader and asked if there might be a member that could accompany them to the only lesson they had on their schedule last week. The mission leader said he would work on it. When they arrived at the lesson, they met the member. Turns out the member was a big Polynesian guy named Manti. My cousin’s son had no idea who he was but the investigator was kind of blown away to have a Heisman Trophy candidate sitting in the living room teaching about the Church! It would appear that Mr. Teo is the real deal. I have no idea how a college football athlete of his stature finds time to go on missionary splits during the week during football season but there he was. That to me is incredibly impressive. I know what I was doing in college and it wasn’t that. And I wasn’t an athlete with the intense time demands they have. I was a big fan of his before last week. Much bigger fan now. Go Irish!

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks Bluegrouse, that’s a great story.

  22. Meldrum, the world must be a tough place to live in when the only representative sampling is the worst of the lot. Time to take a look at the good people do. And the good that Kevin highlighted in this article.

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