SOUTH BEND, INDIANA (HawaiiNewsNow) - "A leap of faith."
That's what Manti Te'o keeps calling his decision to come to the University of Notre Dame, and believe it or not, he was inspired by the movie "Dead Poets Society," which he watched in his high school English class.
"It reminded me, for some reason, it connected with me how I wanted to go somewhere," said Te'o, identifying with the movie's main character, who also had to make an important choice. "I felt a pull for both schools, USC & Notre Dame. So in the middle of class, I closed my eyes and said a prayer. And after I said that prayer, everything just lined up."
Manti still prays, reads scripture, and goes to a Mormon church every Sunday. He says he feels no pressure from his Catholic peers.
Manti's first real challenge at Notre Dame, though, had nothing to do with religion. It came during his freshman year and, of all places, on the football field. He wasn't getting any playing time during practice, and was starting to question his decision to join the Irish, when one day during fall camp...
"I just waited 'til after practice when everyone left the field," recalls Manti. "I just sat down on the bleachers and cried. And it was at that moment that i said 'Okay, this is it. I can either quit now and go home, or I can grow up, shape up, and keep going.'"
Everyone knows in which direction Manti decided to go. Every year he spent in South Bend, he continued improving. Now, he's a Heisman Trophy candidate and a projected top-10 NFL draft pick. A lot has changed since he was a little kid growing up in La'ie.
"I remember the days we used to have the laulau sales, plate lunch sales to send me to the mainland for a football camp," says Te'o.
Manti has four sisters and a younger brother, but he also plays the big brother and leader roles for his teammates, including two other Hawaii products: Kona Schwenke, and Manti's long-time best friend Robby Toma. Toma knew early on that Manti was special.
"It could've been when I was back at Kahuku, he was at Punahou," says Robby with a smile. "He was the biggest punt returner I had ever seen. He was playing against Mid-Pac and he took it to the house. I think that's when you knew that manti was the real deal."
Kona says Manti has been helpful on and off the field.
"He would always ask me how my grades are, how I'm doing in school," he says. "So it's just always good to have that extra support pushing you, not just in football, but also in academics. It just shows how much of a great leader he is."
Manti, by the way, is also a finalist for Academic All-American honors.
But now that his career is winding down in South Bend, where does he rank amongst the school's biggest names?
Experts point out that many of the Irish greats played when Notre Dame was already dominant, while Manti has helped resurrect what many saw as a dying program.
"He's one of the four or five most iconic football players we've ever had here," says Cappy Gagnon, Notre Dame Sports Historian. "Ever, in our history. He's up there with Gip and Rocky and people of that ilk, and he's just an incredible football talent, but probably even a better person."
Manti says he's talked to some of the greatest; Joe Montana, Tim Brown and former coach Ara Parseghian have all contacted him, and they've all said the same thing: "Keep doing what you're doing."
The significance of that is not lost on Manti.
"To know I'm wearing the same uniform they wore, and that I'm representing the same things they represent and now to be a part of that lineage, it never gets old," he says.
And it's not done.
Manti has taken the country by storm, and has restored the University of Notre Dame to prominence, but the final chapters of his story are yet to be written.
Just how far will that leap of faith take him?