Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te'o (5) after the 22-13 victory against the Southern California Trojans during the second half at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
George Schroeder, USA TODAY for KSDK Sports
The outlandish prediction came quickly, and far too easily. They knew it even then. The incoming freshmen were sitting around a dorm room, playing video games and trading boasts.
When Manti Te'o said it "We're gonna win a national championship" everyone agreed.
Never mind that Notre Dame's last national title had come before they were born. Or that the Irish hadn't been truly elite in years. On that summer night, the group had had created and inserted souped-up versions of themselves into their new team, which was winning big against those opponents on the Xbox.
Four years later, here they are. No. 1 Notre Dame faces No. 2 Alabama tonight for the BCS National Championship.
But this isn't a story about boasts fulfilled. When Te'o looks back on that summer night with his new teammates they hadn't participated in a practice, much less a game, he laughs.
Te'o, Robby Toma, Cierre Wood and several others were gathered in the dorm room. They were young and talented and brimming with swagger. With the future wide open, it sounded good. Sure, they'd win one someday, not that anyone really believed it.
"It was just sort of talk," Te'o said. "I was saying it, but I don't know if anyone thought we were gonna make it."
And yet the Irish have the opportunity to complete an improbable perfect season, for college football's most historic brand, an unexpected return to glory even for Te'o and company.
"It's just kind of amazing," said Toma, a senior receiver, "that we followed through on that."
But he chuckles, too, and adds: "You're a freshman. You don't really know what's going on." Right from the start, they had a rude awakening. Even as Te'o played like one of those video-game characters, the actual opponents turned out to be much tougher to handle. That first season, they won only half their games. Charlie Weis and his staff was fired.
The lesson came in a hurry, with impact: "Winning," Te'o said, "is hard."
Brian Kelly was hired and began to build a foundation. But these past couple of years, after the Irish had won eight games, lost five and headed into another bleak Midwestern winter, they watched other teams play for the BCS championship.
During those games, Te'o texted with teammates. No wild predictions, just pleas. He said the essential message was:
"Hey, we've got to make it to one of these. I don't want to be sitting in my living room watching other people play."
And he recalled the resulting flurries of texts as "the most powerful conversations," and much more meaningful than those naïve boasts from freshman summer. A year ago, as Alabama played LSU, Te'o and Toma texted back and forth: "Our team is good enough to be in that game."
Despite the program's on-field results in their first three seasons, the idea seemed less fanciful and more realistic. And when the 2012 season started, as the Irish played at least a little more like those souped-up video games, they gained confidence.
In late October, after a 30-13 victory at Oklahoma, Toma recalls thinking for the first time, "This could come true." They weren't always dominant, but they were somehow different. Te'o said in going unbeaten this season, he learned, "Winning is definitely hard."
"We understand that now, more than ever," he said.