SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Manti Te'o will play at Notre Dame Stadium for the final time Saturday, giving Fighting Irish fans the chance to celebrate one of the best linebackers in the history of the storied program and thank him for leading the team to one of its best seasons in decades.
Expect it to be a memorable moment, but certainly not the end of Te'o's tale at Notre Dame. Not the last time he'll make a big play for the Irish, thump his chest and point to the sky.
When those books are written, they're written about championships. They're written about the great days at Notre Dame. Certainly this has been a great year, but there is more to accomplish, Irish coach Brian Kelly said. I think he would be the first one to tell you that this story is not over with. There are some more chapters to be written.
Notre Dame fans are hoping those chapters include an undefeated season, the school's first national championship since 1988 and Te'o getting a trip to New York with an outside shot to win the Heisman Trophy, the Irish's first since receiver Tim Brown in 1987.
Te'o said he's focused on winning a national championship.
I'd rather be holding a crystal ball than a bronze statue, he said.
The game against Wake Forest (5-5) on Saturday is the primary reason Te'o returned for his senior season instead of leaving for the NFL after last season. He saw how important senior day was to his teammates and then saw how important it was to their parents when videotape of the day was shown at the team banquet.
That's something that money can't buy. Money can't buy that experience, Te'o said. I've realized that. Like I said before, I'm really excited. I'm very grateful that I'll be able to experience that with my family.
The Hawaiian standout said he expects more than 30 family members to attend the game and to celebrate his career. He likely will finish third on Notre Dame's all-time tackles list and he already holds the record for interceptions in a season by a linebacker, but it's his intangibles he will be remembered most for.
Kelly said he's never had a leader such as Te'o.
His relationship with me and the defensive coordinator and how that helps others lay it on the line and say, ‘Hey, whatever our coaches ask us to do.' There's just so many things, Kelly said. He's a leader. He really has galvanized this football team by the way he has performed.
Kelly said others try to emulate Te'o, and that makes them better.
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,' Kelly said. That's something you don't get very often.
It wasn't always that way. Te'o was a hesitant leader as a sophomore, when Kelly first arrived.
He didn't really feel it was his place to tell others how to do things, Kelly said.
The other change came when he stopped trying to do too much.
I think sometimes he was feeling as though he needed to make more plays and he needed to gamble here and there because of not winning enough games, Kelly said. So sometimes he pressed. He knows he doesn't have to do that anymore.