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SALT LAKE CITY — Jon Bon Jovi wasn’t the only rock star generating a buzz among the tens of thousands at Notre Dame Stadium last Saturday.
In this case, “Livin' On A Prayer” takes on a double meaning. While it made millions for the conventional rocker, it’s also the reason an unconventional decision has left millions of Catholics ecstatic.
It’s not every year that Notre Dame successfully recruits a star football player from Hawaii, let alone a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who chooses the most renowned Catholic institution over his faith's institution. But that’s the story of Manti Te’o, the linebacker who has garnered rock star-like attention over the four years he’s played for the Irish.
Te’o‘s college choice was a stunner for several reasons, among them being Notre Dame was a middling program that hadn’t matched its hype for several years. If Te’o wasn’t interested in his church’s school, the consensus at the time was he was bound for national power USC.
Apparently, God had other ideas.
I prayed about it, and everything pointed towards Notre Dame. Notre Dame is where I came because I was directed to come here.
“I prayed about it, and everything pointed towards Notre Dame. Notre Dame is where I came because I was directed to come here,” Te’o said last week before the Irish beat BYU 17-14.
The Notre Dame community’s love affair with Te’o makes Jimmer Fredette’s connection to BYU look like a casual friendship. To the Irish men and women, this is an eternal relationship with benefits, the primary one being the Te’o-led defense has put Notre Dame in serious contention for a national championship.
Standing on the field during Saturday’s game in South Bend, Ind., I saw thousands of fans screaming Te’o’s name and cheering his every move. Long after the game ended, I also witnessed some of those same fans chase down Te’o for an autograph or a photograph as he walked from the stadium in the dark night.
Te’o’s play — along with his personal story, which includes his girlfriend and grandmother dying within hours of each other last month — has provided his school with incredible amounts of exposure. Like Notre Dame needs any more of it.
You’re familiar with that word “exposure,” aren’t you? Anyone who has listened to BYU administrators and BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall knows how much they love the exposure created by the school's decision to become a football independent.
In every conversation, exposure is at the forefront of the discussion. And, by extension, they relate it to the exposure given to the LDS Church. Undeniably, they say, the two are linked.
Assuming that BYU football does give exposure to the LDS religion, it’s easy to wonder how much positive publicity Te’o would have brought the church if he played for BYU. Think of the windows of heaven opening to pour out more exposure than BYU could handle.
All of this begs the question: Can an LDS athlete do more for the LDS Church playing for BYU than anywhere else?
Several years ago, during a casual discussion, a BYU athletic administrator explained the connection that the university’s athletes would always have with its founding institution.
Inescapably, with few exceptions, former Cougars would forever be linked with the LDS Church. The best way to promote the religion, the former official surmised, was for athletes to attend BYU.
Before flying off the handle, all you non-BYU supporters need to think about it. The man had a point.
Consider Steve Young, Danny Ainge and Fredette. All three, outstanding athletes who each received significant acclaim, are inseparably connected to the LDS Church. They are the Donny and Marie Osmond of sports.
In his own way, although not ideally for the Mormons, even Jim McMahon has brought attention to BYU. His was more in the way of notoriety, stemming from the derivative “notorious.”
So what about all those LDS athletes who didn’t go to BYU? How are they known?
It’s reasonable to conclude they aren’t necessarily known as Mormons. Let’s use Mark Madsen as an example.
A basketball standout at Stanford, Madsen led the Cardinal to the Final Four the same season as Utah made it in 1998 and became a first-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Lakers. A stalwart member of his faith, Madsen is more known for his crazy dance to commemorate a Lakers title than he is for being a Mormon.
Remember that stormin’ Mormon who was a teammate of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler on those great Phi Slamma Jamma teams at Houston? That would be Dave Rose, who went from a Houston Cougar to a BYU Cougar as BYU's basketball coach.
And how many people knew that Mark Pope, a member of Kentucky’s national championship team in 1996, was LDS until BYU hired him as an assistant basketball coach?
To be sure, Madsen, Rose and Pope never came close to approximating the athletic feats of the three aforementioned BYU superstars. But there’s no doubt that lesser BYU athletes who ascended to the professional ranks were and are still more readily identified as LDS Church members.
The true test of the former BYU administrator’s theory is upon us in the case of Te’o. The rare Heisman Trophy candidate who does not play quarterback or running back, Te’o is recognized as an incredible talent — and as a young man of great faith.