FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It was the night of college football's national championship game, and Shane Victorino was standing on the Notre Dame sideline. Yes, he loves sports, all sports, but Victorino was there not only for the action, but to show support for a friend.
This was an island thing. A Polynesian thing. A Hawaiian thing. "We all stick together," Victorino said.
It sprang out of the same sense of connection Victorino felt when he went to the White House with the Phillies after they won the World Series in 2008 and the president of the United States embraced him, leaned in and said, "Aloha, bro." One Hawaiian, Barack Obama, to another.
"I'm thinking, man, when's the last time the president of the United States spoke like that?" Victorino said.
Now, it was nearing kickoff, and the Notre Dame player spotted Victorino, broke away from warm-ups and gave his fellow islander a hug. Victorino looked in Manti Te'o's eyes.
"I thought, as another athlete, he's really focused," Victorino said. "I could just see it. Now I can understand what he was going through.
"I say to myself, 'If his mind was clear, could that game have been different?' It's hard to say yes or no because Alabama was great that night, but when your leader is not 100 percent because he's dealing with all these emotions "
If he can make the arrangements, Victorino said, he is hoping that Te'o will be able to visit Boston Red Sox camp this spring. The Heisman Trophy finalist is training in Bradenton, less than two hours away from where Victorino is going through his first spring training as a member of the Sox. At worst, Victorino said, he is hoping they can see each other when the Sox travel to Bradenton to play the Pittsburgh Pirates.
He'd been hearing about Te'o, he said, since the football player's senior year in high school -- at Punahou, the same school on the island of Oahu from which Barack Obama had graduated. Victorino's older brother, Michael, a longshoreman in Maui, from where Victorino became the first big leaguer since 1925, told him he needed to keep an eye on this kid.
After Te'o went to Notre Dame, Victorino said, he began to pay attention. And this past fall, when a board member of Victorino's foundation who was close to Te'o's parents asked Victorino if he'd like to go to Notre Dame to see Te'o play, he jumped at the chance. Especially after he was told that Teo's parents, and the football player himself, considered Victorino an idol. Just the way Victorino had once regarded Benny Agbayani and some of the other Hawaiians who had preceded him to the big leagues.
This was Senior Day at Notre Dame, the Wake Forest game, when the biggest question surrounding Te'o was whether this would finally be the year a defensive player would win the Heisman Trophy. He and Victorino had a chance to visit, to swap stories, to talk of how much you missed the islands when you went away for the first time, Te'o to South Bend, Victorino to Missoula, Mont., as an 18-year-old drafted by the San Diego Padres.
"He talked about how I'm leading the pack for Hawaii athletes, giving hope to them, giving them someone to look at," Victorino said. "I told Manti, you're helping so many kids, too."
And then it all unraveled for Te'o, the apparent victim of a cruel hoax involving the tragic death of an online girlfriend who, in the end, never existed. In some unforgiving circles, it made him a national punchline, as much an object of ridicule as one deserving pity. And then came the national championship game, and with all this stuff swirling about him, he came up short on the biggest stage of his career.
"This kid is a naive young kid who fell in love -- he thought he was in love -- and all of a sudden his story becomes this [other] story, now he's being scrutinized, and suddenly he's a bad kid," Victorino said.
Through it all, Victorino said, they have talked. On the weekend of the Pro Bowl last month, he invited Te'o and his parents to a party Victorino's parents were giving. He wanted Te'o and his family to meet Victorino's parents: father Michael, the city councilman, and mother Joycelyn, the secretary for a big union. "I wanted him to see that when I am home," Victorino said, "my parents still see me as little Shane, not the major league baseball player."
The message in that, of course, was that your family always has your back, and what seems insurmountable at the time will one day pass, and those who love you will remain. And when you are a Hawaiian, your fellow Hawaiians care about you, too. Like family.
When Victorino signs an autograph, he says he always adds the word "mana." What is mana? In the Hawaiian culture, it is a form of a spiritual energy, one with healing power.
"It is something that is in you, inspires you," Victorino said. "It is an inner power you use, like an inner energy."
It is mana, Victorino said, that will enable Te'o to surmount what Victorino tells him is just one road bump in his life, one that will not detour him from having a great NFL career.
"When I was Manti's age," Victorino said, "I was still trying to figure out what kind of man I was. The way he's handled all this is absolutely amazing to watch. Most kids would break down and not be able to do it. He's using it as motivation.
"He's saying, 'All right, people, you want to think I'm this way? I'm going to use that to become an even better player.'"
And when Te'o does, you can bet Victorino will be on the sidelines, cheering.