Not even one percent of the students at the Catholic Notre Dame University are Mormon, but one of those few is generating a great deal of attention. A senior linebacker named Manti Te’o is noted not just for his outstanding basketball skills, but also for his outstanding character in the face of fame’s temptations.

Manti Te’o has maintained an outstanding academic record despite the challenges of football. He is a National Scholar Athlete. He has a 3.2 GPA and will graduate in 2013 with a degree in graphic design. Although he had a solid opportunity to be drafted at the end of his junior year, he prayed and contemplated, and then decided to return to school to finish his senior year.

The day after Christmas, 2012, Manti Te’o learned he had been the victim of a hoax that was apparently carried about under the direction of a former high school classmate. This classmate and several others created an online persona named Lenny, complete with social media profiles and a picture stolen from a woman who did not know her picture was being used. They found a woman to portray Lenny and introduced her to Manti via internet and telephone. She claimed to have leukemia, a tactic likely devised to win his sympathy and to encourage him to stay in touch in order to help her through her trials. Over time, he became closer to her and a long-distance relationship developed. She told him that when she died, she did not want him to come to the funeral but instead wanted him to send flowers and then go out and play the best game ever in her honor. The perpetrators then timed the death to coincide with his grandmother’s death and an important game. As likely suspected, he played particularly well, wanting to honor their memories. When Manti received the telephone call revealing the hoax, he promptly alerted his coaches. They have hired a private investigative team to track down the cruel people who took advantage of a trusting young man’s compassion. They have uncovered at least one person and are now looking into whether or not laws or NCAA violations have occurred. The school is convinced, based on preliminary investigation, that Manti was a victim of a cruel and juvenile hoax. They have noted his deep integrity and his trusting nature. His athletic director sadly commented that Manti had now learned not to be as trusting of the world, and that, while valuable, is a sad thing for young people to learn.

Notre Dame’s athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, speculated on possible motives for the hoax:

”We had no idea of motive, and that was really significant to us. . . . Was somebody trying to create an NCAA violation at the core of this? Was there somebody trying to impact the outcome of football games by manipulating the emotions of a key player? Was there an extortion request coming? When you match the lack of sort of detail we lacked until we got some help investigating it with the risk involved, it was clear to me until we knew more we had to just to continue to work to try to gather the facts,” (See Story of Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend a Hoax.”)

When he lost the Heisman—predicted because he is a linebacker, but mourned by sportswriters who thought he should get it anyway—the press noted he smiled and promptly congratulated the winner. There was never any sign of anger. Sportswriters felt his leadership ability, which allowed him to motivate his team to be far better than predicted, should have entitled him to the award. However, he took away an unprecedented six other high level awards and then, after the ceremony tour, expressed relief at a week in which he only had to take finals and be a normal student, away from the glare of the media.

“Ever since I was young I understood the whole meaning of life isn’t how much money you accumulate, how much fame you experience, it’s how many lives you touch, how many faces you bring smiles to. I see myself back in Hawaii [after football] doing something in the community to improve the lives of young children. Everything I’ve done is to prepare myself to give back.”   (Chicago Sun-Times, August 29, 2011)

His locker contains an autographed football, but not one from an NFL player. It is from an eight-year-old boy who intercepted two passes and returned them for touchdowns, something Manti had not yet done in his college career. He told the child he was Manti’s hero and the boy, excited to be the hero of a college player, obtained a commemorative Notre Dame football and signed it to Manti. Manti touches it before each game.

Manti Te’o is proof that fame and bad behavior don’t have to go together. He puts his priorities in the right place and focuses on the greater good.

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