Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=214538
Story Retrieval Date: 11/28/2014 8:26:49 PM CST

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SOURCE: James Byron

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o on senior night.


Mind games: Did the hoax affect Te'o's championship play?

by Sandy McAfee
Jan 24, 2013


MANTI_table

Sandy McAfee/MEDILL

Manti Te'o's game stats.

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Manti Te'o timeline

• Sept. 12: Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o learns that his grandmother died. Two hours later, Te’o gets a call from Kekua’s alleged brother who says she died.
• Sept. 15: Notre Dame beats Michigan State. Te’o has 12 tackles.
• Dec. 6: Te’o gets a call from Kekua’s number and the person on the other line says she’s actually not dead.
• Dec. 26: Te’o notifies Notre Dame coaches, and the university launches an investigation.
• Jan. 4: CBS reports that Notre Dame received findings of the investigation.
• Jan. 7: Notre Dame plays Alabama in the BCS title game Miami.
• Jan. 16: Deadspin.com report published and hoax comes to media’s attention.


Manti Te’o told ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap that the elaborate hoax surrounding Te'o's alleged girlfriend Lennay Kekua did not affect his play in the National Championship game on Jan. 7. However, game statistics and those close to student-athletes suggest it possibly did.

“When you’re stuck in a big game like that, you can’t let it affect you, no matter how much it’s weighing on you,” Te’o told Schaap. “In a big game like that, there’s people that depend on you to perform. And no matter what you’re going through, you need to perform. So in that case, I can.”
 
Yet Te’o had the most lackluster performance of his otherwise fairy-tale season, recording 10 tackles, only three unassisted, with zero interceptions, fumble recoveries or big plays. Te’o ended the regular season with 101 total tackles and seven interceptions. He had six regular season games with ten tackles or more and averaged 8.4 total tackles a game.

“This year had been a special year for him,” said Al Lesar, a sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, who covers Te’o and Notre Dame football.

Lesar said what was so inconsistent about Te’o’s play in Notre Dame’s 42-14 loss wasn’t that he had zero sacks and zero interceptions. It was the number of missed tackles. In the championship game against Alabama, Te’o missed two tackles in the first half. Notre Dame coaches recorded one missed tackle for Te’o the entire season.

“He was a different guy that game,” Lesar said. “He wasn’t the same kind of person he was all year.”

Michele Kerulis, director of sports and health psychology at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, said that student athletes, such as Te’o, are essentially working two full-time jobs. They are not only college students, but also are athletes who spend 40+ hours a week in practices, games and traveling.

“When it comes into a big game, the amount of pressure doubles just walking into the situation," she said.

Kerulis said that the psychological pressure of a big-game scenario is already high, but increases even more when a personal distraction is added to the mix.

“An emotional disturbance makes it much more difficult for the athlete to focus in the game at hand,” she said. “Once it’s in the spotlight, those emotions become even more emphasized.”

No one knows how Te’o mentally coped with the reality that his believed-dead girlfriend was not in fact dead. Only Te’o knows that. But according to Kerulis, some athletes deal with a personal problem by working on the issue 100 percent off the field and can put it aside when it’s time to play. Other athletes, however, have a harder time and concentrate only on the distraction.

Lesar said that Te’o would most likely reflect the former in Kerulis’s scenario.

“He’s the face of the Notre Dame defense, the Notre Dame team really,” Lesar said. “The football field is his comfort zone, his escape. I’m sure he used that in the same way to deal with this.”

Te’o’s uninspiring performance could possibly be attributed to the mental weight that came with discovering the hoax, but it could also be credited to a superior opponent. Alabama dominated the previously undefeated Notre Dame, holding the Irish to only 14 points that all came late in the second half. The Crimson Tide put up an impressive 529 total yards against Te’o and the Notre Dame defense.

“Alabama was a team of such caliber they’d never met before,” Lesar said. “The offensive line, and Lacy… Lacy is a special, special person.”

Despite the loss, Te’o became one of the most decorated defensive players in college football history, earning such accolades as the Butkus and Lombardi Awards. He also finished second in the vote for the Heisman Trophy. And before news of the hoax broke, Te’o was heralded for his outstanding play in light of personal tragedies – losing his grandmother and alleged girlfriend – and was seen as a man with great character. (See sidebar.)

Though Te’o and Notre Dame were reportedly aware of the hoax during that time, it was not made public. A Notre Dame spokesman told the South Bend Tribune that the university chose not to disclose information regarding the hoax and subsequent investigation because they did not think it would be “in the best interest of the teams playing in BCS championship game or the individuals involved.”

Media outlets are still trying to make sense of the bizarre story involving one of college football’s most heartwarming stories of the year. Thursday morning reports began circulating that Te’o admits to Katie Couric that he lied about Kekua after he knew he was being duped. The full interview aired Thursday afternoon.

As more details are uncovered and the timeline of the hoax takes a more definite shape, media and news are examining Te’o’s behavior during the period between the day he discovered the hoax on Dec. 6 and when the hoax was made public on Jan. 16 – a time gap with the national championship game right in the mix.

“It’s got to be hard, really hard for him” Lesar said about on how Te’o’s currently dealing with the scandal. “He’s a sensitive kid, he cares about what people think about him, his reputation is important to him, his Mormon faith is important to him. Having everything in such a negative light has to be eating at him.”