November 27th, 2012
11:33 AM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) - It was a goal-line stand in the fourth quarter that sealed the University of Notre Dame football team's Saturday victory over the University of Southern California – and earned the No. 1-ranked team a trip to the national championship game.
Leading the bruising Fighting Irish defense was senior linebacker Manti Te'o, whose play this season has earned him consideration for the Heisman Trophy and has helped lead a storied squad back to the top of college football after years of floundering.
But Te'o initially struggled with the decision over whether to attend Notre Dame. The Catholic school's star linebacker is a committed Mormon.
Te'o gave voice to that struggle in his announcement in 2009 that he'd attend the Indiana college, which was broadcast live on ESPN. “I’ve prayed hard about it and my family has thought hard and long about it," he said.
Graduating from Punahou High School in Hawaii, Te'o had his choice of the best football programs in the country. His Mormon faith was a serious factor in the decision-making process, said his former high school coach, Kale Ane.
"A lot of that weighed on him," Ane, who coached Te'o for three years, told CNN. "The final weight was getting his message out on a broader scale. A Mormon at a Catholic school was a good way to say, 'You can keep your faith no matter where you go.' "
The University of Notre Dame's undergraduates are 83% Catholic, according to the admissions department.
"It hasn’t been an issue," said Notre Dame Athletics spokesman John Heisler, speaking of Te'o's membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "I think there was more an issue when he was being recruited to him having access to his religion in South Bend and here on campus."
“The emphasis here is that this is a place of faith and it really doesn’t matter what your faith is,” Heisler told CNN, noting that he himself is not Catholic. “Faith is really important to people here. Whether you’re a Catholic or a Mormon, it’s a place of great faith.”
Indeed, three other Notre Dame players are also Mormon, according to the local Mormon bishop.
Notre Dame was founded by Edward F. Sorin, a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, in 1842. That Catholic ethos extends to the football team to this day.
A mural of Jesus with raised arms on the side of the college's library faces the football field and has been dubbed "Touchdown Jesus." Football fans visit the campus replica of France's Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes to light candles for the team before every game.
On Saturdays before home games, the football team is led in a Mass by Father Paul Doyle, 69, a 1965 graduate of the university. Another Catholic priest from the university travels with the team for away games.
"We have Mass in the big church on campus, in the Basilica," said Doyle, who has been the team chaplain for a decade. "I say the Mass, then the team gets something to eat. I’m with them throughout the game. When they come into the locker room after their warm-up, I'm standing there giving them a blessing."
Just before the team takes the field for the game, Doyle leads them in the Lord's Prayer.
"We used to say the Hail Mary in the locker room, but more than half of our players aren’t Catholic," Doyle said. " It’s odd for the non-Catholics to pray a specifically Catholic prayer."
Doyle said the team switched to the more ecumenical Lord's Prayer after then-Coach Bob Davie asked him to make the change nearly 10 years ago. The prayer is used in virtually every Christian tradition, though the LDS church does not routinely use it in worship.
Doyle is also a chaplain in the residence hall where Te'o has lived for three years. At one point, they lived across the hall from one another.
“Manti tells everybody he has found it helpful to not have to worry about telling people he’s a God-fearing person. People take that for granted around here,” Doyle said.
“Manti is a very religious guy. He seeks out his Mormon congregation and attends off-campus faithfully,” Doyle said.
Te'o has been a member of the local Notre Dame Ward – the Mormons' rough equivalent of a Catholic parish – in Mishawaka, Indiana, for four years, according to ward Bishop Jim Carrier. The five counties in and around South Bend, Indiana, are home to about 2,000 Latter-day Saints, Carrier said.
A common practice in the LDS Church, which has no professional clergy, is having members give testimonies during Sunday worship services.
"I asked (Te'o) to talk about what influenced him to come to Notre Dame and how he used prayer in prompting him to make that decision," Carrier said.
Carrier said Te'o spoke about leaning toward attending the University of Southern California. But as he prayed about his decision, coaches from Notre Dame called to check in. “He said he just felt an overwhelming feeling it was where he needed to go," Carrier said. "He said, 'It was an answer to prayer for me.'"
Te'o's faith has spurred speculation about whether he will serve on a two-year Mormon mission, as the church encourages male members between 18 and 25 to do.
Carrier said that Te'o has decided to forgo his mission, a move not uncommon among the growing ranks of high-profile Mormon athletes.
"Young men are encouraged to serve as missionaries if they are able," said LDS church spokesman Michael Purdy. "However, each individual must decide whether or not to serve a full-time mission.”
Former Brigham Young University quarterback Steve Young opted not to participate in a Mormon mission. Instead he jumped to the NFL, eventually leading the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl victory and earning a place in football's Hall of Fame.
“It’s a tough position to be in," said Ane, Te'o's high school coach. "I think he has such a small window to compete and get his message out. I think (Te'o's) thinking he wants to do as much as he can in this mission as opposed to a mission in another country.”
Carrier said Te'o's decision to skip a mission was a difficult one.
"He felt like he could do more staying playing football than going out and serving a mission," the bishop said.“He understands his role and the pressure put on him of being such a good role model, and he understands that’s part of his responsibility.”
Te'o has been vocal about the role his faith plays in his life and how he leaned on it earlier this year after both his grandmother and girlfriend died in the span of less than two days during football season. His girlfriend died after battling leukemia. Te'o stayed with the team throughout the ordeal, playing one of the best games of his career the following Saturday.
Editor's note: Since this story was first published, Notre Dame officials and Manti Te'o have called the story of the death of his girlfriend a hoax.
"Four years ago I made the decision to come here and I didn't really know why," Te'o told a pep rally before that game. "It's times like these I know why. I love each and every one of you, and I can't thank you enough."
"I know one thing for sure – I will see them again," he said of his grandmother and girlfriend after their deaths. "I have faith and have peace knowing I will spend the rest of life after this with the people whom I love."
The lines spoke to the Mormon emphasis on families that are bonded for eternity. But then Te'o returned to a mode more familiar to Notre Dame. "I love you guys," he told the crowd. "Go Irish!"
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.