College football: Te’o goes for Heisman history
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o will try to become the first defense-only player to win the Heisman Trophy.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — If Manti Te’o’s career at Notre Dame has seemed like something straight out of a Hollywood script, perhaps it is fitting the linebacker is cast as an underdog in the final two scenes of his collegiate career.
First, he will try to become the first defense-only player to win the Heisman Trophy, going up against a couple of quarterbacks on Saturday night in Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Kansas State’s Collin Klein.
Next month, he will lead the top-ranked Fighting Irish against defending champion Alabama in the national championship game as Notre Dame tries to become the first team since BYU in 1984 to start a season unranked and win it all. Te’o still finds it a bit hard to believe.
“It’s something that I never — I don’t think anybody could anticipate or expect. It’s always a goal to be the best, to be the best you can be, and I just — I didn’t think that it would be to this magnitude,” he said.” I’m just very grateful to be in this situation and to represent my team.”
Te’o has represented the Irish amazingly well, showing courage in playing his best game of the season just days after his girlfriend and grandmother died a few hours apart. He never missed practice and made a season-high 12 tackles, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery in a 20-3 victory over then-No. 10 Michigan State.
A week later, on the day his girlfriend was buried, Te’o had two interceptions, leading to a touchdown and a field goal, and had two more quarterback hurries that led to interceptions in a 13-6 victory over Michigan as many Irish fans wore leis to show their support for the star who grew up in Hawaii.
The biggest item missing from Te’o’s résumé from the perspective of some Heisman Trophy voters might be that he has never passed or run for a touchdown, just about a prerequisite for winners. He has other impressive numbers, though. His seven interceptions are the most by a Notre Dame linebacker and the most by any linebacker since Georgia’s Tony Taylor had that many in 2006. Te’o also has 103 tackles.
His coaches and teammates, though, say the numbers don’t begin to tell the story of Te’o. He has been the face and heartbeat of not only Notre Dame’s defense but the entire team that kept surprising naysayers, from winning at Oklahoma to stirring goal-line stands against Stanford and Southern California.
“If a guy like Manti isn’t going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award and just give it to the offensive player every year and cut to the chase,” coach Brian Kelly said. “He is the backbone of a 12-0 football team that has proven itself each and every week.”
The most compelling part of Te’o’s story, though, is his journey. How after three mostly mediocre seasons for the team, he helped turn this season into one Irish fans will talk about for years.
The fact that a Mormon from Hawaii who hates cold weather ended up at a Roman Catholic university in a northern Indiana city that averages more than 70 inches of snow a year seems unlikely, especially considering he was such a fan of archrival USC growing up that he was in tears when the Irish nearly upset the Trojans in 2005.
Te’o wore shorts and flip-flops for his campus visit during a blustery November weekend when some in the crowd threw snowballs at Irish players during an embarrassing 24-23 loss to Syracuse, the first eight-loss team to defeat the Irish.
Te’o has said the game didn’t play a role in his decision. What did, though, was his English teacher showing the movie Dead Poets Society on the eve of signing day in February 2009. Te’o had decided he was going to USC, but a character in the film struggling with a difficult life choice prompted Te’o to rethink his choice. He prayed, and something told him to go to Notre Dame.
He believes what has happened to him this season shows the power or prayer.
“I think for anybody who’s questioning if God lives, he lives, and I’m an example of that. For those who don’t know if he answers your prayers, he does, because he answered mine,” Te’o said. “If he didn’t answer prayers, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have come here. I definitely wouldn’t have come back for my senior year. And I wouldn’t have done a lot of things that I’ve done.”