MIAMI — In the most emotional year of his life, the reality of everything he has been through — and that his college football career is about to end — finally hit Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o late Saturday morning.
That was when he walked into Sun Life Stadium for the first time and stepped on the field where he and the Fighting Irish will play Alabama Monday night for the BCS national championship. His reaction caught even him by surprise.
"It's becoming really real, especially as I walked on this field," Te'o said. "This is my first time seeing it, first time seeing the crystal ball (BCS trophy) up close. To know that Monday I could be part of the team that hoists that crystal ball, it's definitely becoming real."
Perhaps no player in the nation has been hit by more reality than Te'o this season. The 6-foot-2, 250-pound native of Hawaii lost his girlfriend to leukemia and his grandmother on back-to-back days in September.
He never missed a game, which amazed his teammates and added to the love and respect they have for him.
"It's been a lot going on in his life, and we've just been trying to stay by his side, the coaches the players and everybody on campus," Notre Dame nose guard Louis Nix said. "We just stuck with him and kept him encouraged. He did a lot of things I don't know if I would have gone the same route. (If) my girlfriend passed away and my grandma, I'd be distraught. But he stayed with us, and that touched a lot of us."
For Te'o, the decision to remain with his team and battle through his pain was easy: it's where he is most comfortable.
"Football is my sanctuary where I feel most at home," he said. "And when I'm with my guys, when I'm with my coach, that's my comfort zone, and that's where I want to be."
The senior finished the regular season with a team-high 103 tackles (52 solo), one fumble recovery and seven interceptions — a performance that culminated with a Heisman Trophy runnerup finish. Yet his teammates said he remains the same person today as he was before all the nation knew his name.
"He hasn't changed one bit," receiver TJ Jones said. "He's one of my best friends on the team. We lived right next to each other for two years in the dorms. And I can honestly say he hasn't changed. He's just a real loving guy. He loves his brothers, he loves his family. He's all about the bigger picture. He's not really into the individual awards, the individual accolades."
Te'o missed valuable practice time during the awards circuit — he won the Maxwell Award as the nation's best player in a media and coaches' poll as well as the Lombardi Award as the nation's best front-seven defender, among many other honors — but defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said Te'o has practiced harder than he has all season.
"For as talented a player as he is, he's a better person," Diaco said. "His family, just the roots of his family, you think about he's his father's son, and his father is a guy that when he was a kid, the father wasn't a coach, but he would go to coaching clinics to find out the small nuances and techniques to help teach Manti. That kind of commitment, that kind of love, that kind of bond, the culture that he's from, he brings all that to the position, to the unit, to the team, to the university. Just happy, full of life."
When the final seconds tick off Monday, Te'o hopes Notre Dame fans realize he gave his best.
"I hope my legacy is just a guy who gave Notre Dame his all, a guy who really committed himself to the school," Te'o said. "I really feel fortunate to play under the Golden Dome and receive an education there. Just one who really gave everything he had."
Antonya English can be reached a [email protected]