Linebacker grabs national attention
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This has been a banner year for amateur LDS athletes.
Basketball star Jabari Parker, a lifelong member, is regarded as the top high school hoopster in the United States for 2012 and has already been featured in a Sports Illustrated cover story. Basketball watchers (including legions of hopeful BYU fans) are eagerly awaiting Jabari's college choice.
But most sports headlines about a Latter-day Saint athlete in recent weeks have focused, curiously, on a linebacker at Catholic-owned Notre Dame University who shares his name with an ancient Nephite soldier.
Manti Te'o, another lifelong member who grew up in an observant LDS home in Hawaii, was a finalist this year for the Heisman Trophy, college football's most prestigious award. The 21-year-old would finish second in the Heisman voting to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel — but his remarkable career at the storied college in South Bend, Ind., has made Manti a household name among football fans across the nation. He has also been recognized as the top linebacker and defensive player in the nation.
He's even been featured (in Jabari-like fashion) on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The senior gridder and team captain is the unquestioned leader on an undefeated Notre Dame squad that is preparing to play in the Jan. 7, 2013, national championship game against Alabama. That title game will mark Manti's final game for the Fighting Irish. Over the past four years, he's become perhaps the most recognizable face on campus.
Manti is also an active congregant at the Notre Dame Ward, South Bend Indiana Stake. Over the past four years, he has become comfortable answering the oft-answered question about how a young Mormon athlete from Hawaii ended up playing in South Bend. He often responds to questions about his faith by testifying of the power of prayer.
"I think for anybody who's questioning if God lives, He lives, and I'm an example of that," he told the Associated Press. "For those who don't know if He answers your prayers, He does, because He answered mine. If He didn't answer prayers, I wouldn't be here ... and I wouldn't have done a lot of things that I've done."
Manti's historic senior season included personal challenges that required him to draw upon his faith. Early in the season, his maternal grandmother, Annette Santiago, and girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died in the span of less than two days. His girlfriend succumbed following a battle with leukemia.
"I know one thing for sure — I will see them again," he said at a school pep rally following the deaths. "I have faith and peace knowing I will spend the rest of life after this with the people whom I love."
Manti's football career is expected to continue long after next month's national championship game. Most football writers predict he will be taken in the first round of the 2013 National Football League draft.
He isn't the only member suiting up for the Irish. Freshman safety Chris Badger, a returned missionary from Utah, and junior nose guard Kona Schwenke from Hauula, Hawaii, are also on the roster.