In the days after the Manti Teo story broke I was having trouble getting something from the back of my mind to the front. Where had I heard some of this before, something about phone calls and someone dying and somehow it was connected to Manti?
I have known him as a student since he arrived on campus; it was a very casual friendship where we often chatted about family, faith and his schoolwork though, as I recall, we never talked football. I really liked him and how he handled himself, always finding time for anyone he ran into on campus and he had a real knack for remembering names. He was like a big kid just having fun in the moment and his place at Notre Dame.
Then in the hours leading up to the interview with ESPN, as this whole story seemed to go farther and farther into the realm of unbelievable what was in the back of my mind hit me flush. It was something I had written.
In the fall of 2011 I was assigned to write a profile of Manti for a book called Strong of Heart. We spent more than two hours together one day doing the interview, just the two of us. He really opened up and told me some things that had not before been in the public domain. And what stands out today even more than it did the day of the interview is how Manti was impacted by the suicide of a 17 year old cousin and how he remained haunted and questions himself if there was anything HE could have done.
“What if I had called him the night before, what if I had sensed something was wrong and could have gone to him to share a few words or a hug or a smile.” I looked across the table and saw grief on Manti’s face and for the first time during the interview he had to pause and regain composure.
I can only write about the Manti I came to know, the one who told me that coming to Notre Dame only increased his spirituality, the Manti who climbed through the rubble of a crumpled fence and was one of the first at the side of the dying Declan Sullivan and whispered a prayer in his ear. That is the young man I came to know and, at his very core, I think he still is.