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Roots in church, family keep Notre Dame’s Te’o grounded

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MISHAWAKA, Ind. — Outside the chapel walls on the first Sunday of August, there is little more than sunlight and a tinny thrum of cicadas.

A moderate crowd filters into the parking lots and then through the doors for the 9 a.m. service at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They're quiet and happy. Nothing breaks the tranquility except the occasional interjection of a car door snapping shut.

Opening prayers are almost under way when a black SUV appears on the road. Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's linchpin inside linebacker, is a bit late. But he had to borrow the ride from one teammate and pick up another. Once arrived, wearing a rust-colored shirt and tie, Te'o walks inside like he does most Sundays, to reconnect with a place more than 4,000 miles away.

As church members prepare a celebrant of water and wine, Te'o leans over and says: "You came on a perfect day."

It's Fast Sunday. Church members skip two meals, then donate the money they would have spent on the meals to help the needy. Instead of sermons, the service is open for anyone to volunteer testimony about his or her religious experiences.

Over the course of an hour, people talk about lost earrings, health breakthroughs and 95-year-old mothers who play with water balloons. It's about 9:50 a.m. when, from the back of the small, bright chapel, a 250-pound cannonball from Laie, Hawaii, walks toward the podium.

And for the next five minutes or so, a crowd listens reverently as Te'o tells them why he feels at home.

Long way from home

If there is a defensive renaissance at Notre Dame this fall, a Mormon kid from paradise will lead it. It still seems inherently bizarre that Te'o could choose to spend three or four years in northwest Indiana, at a profoundly Catholic institution. After all, on his first visit to campus, it was so bitterly cold that he retreated indoors in the middle of a game.

How he settled on snowballs over sunscreen and whitecaps still amazes even Te'o, but it has become easier to manage the longing. It pained him to return for summer school and miss his sister's graduation, as he'd fallen again for the idyllic life during the semester break.

But when that satisfaction swelled in him, he felt another tug: It was time to go.

"Actually now, I really have to think: 'Oh, I'm not in Hawaii,' " Te'o says. "Of course, when I go down the street, I know I'm not in Hawaii when I don't see mountains or the ocean.

Read the complete story on articles.chicagotribune.com.