Thursday, January 24, 2013

Manti Te'o: Why I Care

I enter my third and final reflection (for now, right?) about Manti Te’o knowing that many people have grown weary of the “weird,” albeit sad details of the “catfish” hoax. In the past week I have noticed a large camp has raised the question “Why does anyone care?”  People often ask this with an air of disgust mixed with self-righteousness. However, it’s not a question I’m afraid to answer; in fact, I think it’s a brilliant question—it’s the question. Manti’s own words serve as my reason I care.  

In the video “Strong of Heart,“ Manti said “any athlete who thinks he’s not a role model is very mistaken.” I care because I still view Manti as an excellent role model.

The current debate—hero or anti-hero?—called me to consider whether Deadspin is a reliable, credible resource. The day after I read his two and a half hour interview with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, I heard “today we have athletes like Manti Te’o and Lance Armstrong, but 50 years ago we had athletes like Stan Musial who died at 92 years of age.” To put those two men in the same camp was unfair and unfounded. A week after Ronaiah confessed to duping Manti, I opened Sports Illustrated to see Manti Te’o and Lance Armstrong featured in the same article (about their catfish tales). The truth of the matter is, I still see Manti as a role model. Many people will find that hard to believe. But I hold that belief because that’s Manti. He’s always been beyond belief from the moment he committed to Notre Dame through Katie Couric’s interview today. Here are but a few thoughts about why I believe what I do.

It doesn’t take much research to recognize Manti’s story (long before January 16, 2013) was unlike any other. Why a Mormon from Hawaii would travel to South Bend, Indiana, to play football for a program that had more downs that ups in recent years was beyond me. He made his official visit wearing shorts and flip-flops. Manti saw a 24-23 loss to a 2-9 team. Syracuse. It was cold and gray in November 2008. He had no business committing to ND, but he did.  

In the interview “Committed to Excellence: Manti and Skylar” Te’o told Kate Sullivan why: 
To be honest, I had to pray about it. I grew up a USC fan—a die-hard USC fan.  All the way up to the day before signing day I was going to go to with USC.  But I sat down and I prayed about it.  Things just started to happen and everything started to point to ND.  I learned being young and from my parents that whenever you are looking for an answer to a question, and you ask the Lord—the hardest part is not praying, the hardest part is taking whatever answer He gives you…and going through with it. Obviously going to Notre Dame wasn’t the answer I wanted but it was the answer that I was given. It was a leap of faith for me.  

It’s hard to believe that Manti would turn down a successful program—the alma mater of fellow Samoan linebacker Junior Seau—because of an answer he received in his prayer.  But, proclaims that his faith is important to him. If true, we have a role model in what listening to the Lord can do.  That is always a scary proposition, but his impact on and off the field point to fact he is achieving his dream, magnifying God’s goodness. He said, “My dream is not to play in the NFL--that’s my goal.  My dream is to have the most impact on the most people as possible.”

Great role models do this in big and small ways. I love Thérèse of Lisieux’s spirituality: The Little Way, and I see that in Manti. As reported in “The Full Manti” he is personable. For example, he greets everyone—cooks, walk-ons, and dorm neighbors by name. He said, “You never know what kind of impact you can have on someone by just saying hello.” Who knew others would abuse a virtue like this?

Perhaps it is his Hawaiian (and part Samoan) heritage, but hospitality supersedes his reputation. With his teammates, he sought to create a culture of uso, a Samoan word for brotherhood and with his peers he created one of consideration. He never lets another student sit alone. When you’re larger than life—people watch. This is what his peers have noticed.

He said, “the hardest thing for me is to know that it’s not my first name I care about, it’s my last name. And to see that being tossed around, because there’s many people who carry the same last name as me. Given his culture and values, his comment should not be surprising, but I was. Not only has this role model built a culture of uso, he lives it and defends it. Way to go Manti.

Do you find it hard to believe he’s an Eagle Scout? Probably not...that one’s easy!

I think it’s important that we see our role models fail. We can learn from their mistakes. Manti said that his biggest regret was that he lied to his father about “meeting” Lennay. I would like someone who has never lied to their parents about a relationship to cast the first stone here. In his interview with Katie Couric, Manti speaks to what he learned: the greatest joy in any child’s life is to make your parents proud. The greatest pain is to know they’re experiencing pain because of you. As someone unwilling to cast that first stone, I couldn’t agree more. Thank you Manti for naming that sentiment so beautifully.

The rest of Manti’s story will unfold with time. To me, Manti is “just a kid trying to become a man.” He was a victim of deception; he cared too much. When I meet my maker, I hope He will convict me of caring too much. People may ask how he could care about someone who didn’t exist, but to Manti she was “real.” I know we live in a world where it is much more difficult to distinguish between what is real and not real—literally and figuratively. In the meantime, I’m grateful so many care about him—a role model who will always raise the question: hero or anti-hero?

Photo Credits
Role Model|


  1. Thank you for having a positive spin on this situation and for sharing Manti's faith in prayer. Poor guy to be taken advantage of like this and glad that Notre Dame is backing him. I find it so sad that people can't believe you can fall in love without meeting in person.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I read an interesting editorial in the WSJ entitled "The Truth About Te'o's Truth" that read

    The hosts were talking about the strange particulars of Te'o saga—how the Notre Dame linebacker had seemingly been hoaxed into falling in love with a woman he'd corresponded with via phone—and at some point, one of the hosts said, with great assurance, "I could never fall in love with someone I never met."

    I nearly swerved the car into a hydrant. Because of all the truths and semi-truths exposed in this bizarre public unraveling, what the story of Manti Te'o seemed to prove the most was that people are inclined to love what they don't truly know. Never fall for someone you've never met? You have got to be kidding me. That leap is the essence of big-time sports fandom—emotional attachment to strangers wearing familiar uniforms. Sports fans fall in love with people and narratives they don't truly know, understand, or investigate, all the time

    To me, that speaks directly and indirectly to your point. Manti was in a relationship with her from 4/26 until 9/12....this isn't the much time, which allows the public to really blow it out of proportion. For much of that time she was "sick" too. He was attached to a person he cared about. People have made her into the "love of his life." At 21 years of age, that's a lot of put on anyone or any relationship. Thanks for reading.