Despite personal tragedy, Manti plays on for school and family

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA (HawaiiNewsNow) - He's been hoisted into the stands, fans chant his name at every game, and the national media can't get enough of him.

And yet, for all the doors football has opened for Manti Te'o, there are times he'd love to keep them closed.

"It's great to have all the attention representing my school, and the state, and my family, most importantly," says Manti as he relaxes on the couch of his off-campus apartment. "But it gets overwhelming."

Whenever Manti has a chance to breathe, he likes to spend some time alone in his room. He points to the 3 flags draped around his room: Hawaii, Western Samoa and American Samoa.

"Three things my parents taught me: Never forget who you are, where you come from, and what you represent," says Manti. "Those are my reminders of those things."

The people of South Bend have seen those values first hand over the past few years.

Manti keeps his Mormon faith strong despite going to the most famous Catholic university in the country. He cherishes every moment he has with his family when they visit, and he even volunteers at the South Bend Center for the Homeless.

"When I'm around children and I see them have dreams and aspirations of doing something big and me giving them hope that they can actually achieve it," says Manti, "that's what brings me joy."

"I spent a day with him at the homeless shelter one day going into his junior year," says Eric Hansen, of the South Bend Tribune. "He's not just sitting there talking to the kids, they're climbing on him. They thought he was a playground piece. They were all over him."

Manti's presence has been felt all over, from the homeless center to the locker room.

"He lives his life the right way," says Notre Dame Head Football Coach Brian Kelly. "When that guy walks in and out of here every day, there's a mirroring effect, and a trickle down to the other players. They're gonna go, 'I wanna be like that guy.'"

Manti says the reason he came back for his senior year instead of going straight to the NFL was not to improve his stock, but to make a bigger impact in the community.

Little did he know, this was the year everyone else would give back when Manti needed it most.

On September 12th, Manti lost his grandmother, Annette Santiago, to a long-time illness. Just hours later, he got the news that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, had died of leukemia.

"Her older brother called me, and he was crying and crying and crying," Manti recalls. "That's when he told me, he said, 'she's gone.' I broke."

That weekend, the Irish played at Michigan State. Lennay had made Manti promise that if anything happened to her, he would stay with the team and honor her with his play on the field.

He did as he promised, racking up 12 tackles in a 20-3 win over the Spartans.

The following week, Manti and the team returned to South Bend.

During the pre-game pep rally Friday night the fans chanted his name, and raised their hands towards the team, depicting his number 5.

The next Saturday, against the University of Michigan, he played for Lennay again, and had 8 tackles and 2 interceptions.

As much as Manti loves his time away from the field, he knows he's called to something greater.

His character, his life, has played out on national TV inspiring millions. And while his heart still weighs heavy for loved ones lost....

"They're beautiful, they're strong, they're happy and have nothing to worry about," says Manti. "Now it's just our turn. We'll see them again."

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