Last updated: February 19. 2013 6:42PM - 165 Views

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Amid the fury of the game, the roaring crowd and thudding hits, the clatter of shoulder pads, Manti Te'o searches for a quiet moment.

Stepping away from his teammates, he closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, says a quick prayer.

It's just football, he whispers.

If only that were true.

As an inside linebacker at Notre Dame, Te'o is having the kind of season that players dream about, dominating opponents while lifting the Irish to No. 1 in the Bowl Championship Series standings. But football is only part of the story.

For all his success, he has endured well-publicized heartache. There have been personal tragedies and the expectations that come with ranking among the best defensive players in the land.

This young man from Hawaii, who would just as soon be hanging out with friends and going to church, doesn't particularly like hearing his name in the Heisman Trophy conversation.

I don't like all the noise, he said. I don't like the spotlight.

As the Irish prepare to face USC in their traditional rivalry game Saturday, it seems the past few months have asked much of Te'o.

When you go through a lot, whether it be on the field or in life, you need to step back, he said. You need to understand what is important.

The bad news came in bunches. The day after Te'o turned 21 last January, his grandfather passed away. A few months later, a cousin died at birth.

Then, in September, his grandmother and his girlfriend - who was battling leukemia - died one after the other.

Hailing from a large, close-knit family, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound athlete found himself dealing with something he could not outrace or bull his way through.

Young people have this tendency to feel they are invincible, his father, Brian, said. Manti had to learn from the experience and find strength around him.

Family and friends provided support. So did the Mormon church. And football.

The game has always been his outlet, said Robby Toma, a high school teammate who followed him to Notre Dame.


Notre Dame at USC

8 p.m. Saturday, ABC

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