Playing the Underdog Again
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 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 BCS 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 all 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 both 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 win 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 resume from the perspective of some Heisman Trophy voters might be that he’s never passed or run for a touchdown, just about a prerequisite for winners. He has plenty of other impressive numbers, though. His seven interceptions are the most ever 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.
It was enough to impress the country’s major college football coaches, who selected him the Walter Camp national player of the year and the Chuck Bednarik award recepient — an honor given to the nation’s most outstanding defensive player — on Thursday.
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 the Notre Dame defense but the entire team that kept surprising naysayers, from winning at Oklahoma to those 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 only defensive player to win the trophy was Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997. But Woodson also played some wide receiver and returned punts.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said he’s never understood why defensive players don’t win the award and believes Te’o is deserving.
“They’re noted for their defense and he’s the quarterback of the defense,” Stoops said. “He’s been the guy all year. He’s been their guy and I don’t think there’s any question he’s a guy that should have a great opportunity to win it.”
Te’o showed his leadership skills before the Oklahoma game. Quarterback Everett Golson had struggled in a big game against Michigan and Te’o asked Kelly if he could talk to Golson before the game. Kelly didn’t ask Te’o what he wanted to say.
“Because it’s really not important for me what Manti is talking about with the quarterback because I know what he’s going to say is all positive. But Everett got up with a big smile on his face. I think it set him at ease,” Kelly said. “I think he impacts everybody on our football team.”
With seven Heisman winners, Notre Dame has had some unconventional winners. Paul Hornung, who played quarterback, halfback and safety, is the only Heisman winner to play for a losing team. The Irish were 2-8 when he won in 1956. Quarterback John Huarte won in 1964 while leading the Irish to a 9-1 record a season after failing to letter for a 2-7 squad.
The most compelling part of Teo’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 turning point may have actually come last season. After a 31-17 loss to USC last October, Kelly was asked if getting players to play like he wants at Notre Dame was a harder sell than at other schools. Kelly replied: “You can see the players that I recruited here. You know who they are. We’ve had one class of recruiting, kids that I’ve had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along, but it’s a process. It can’t happen overnight. They’re getting there. They’re making good progress.”
That upset some players, with Te’o tweeting: “Playin for my bros and that’s it!!!!”
Kelly apologized for his remarks.
“I think anytime in a family there are going to be some disagreements,” Kelly said. “Maybe the way I did it wasn’t the appropriate way. But I think it was pretty clear that we understood each other in terms of what my expectations were. I just wish I handled it better.”
The Irish came together after that, with Te’o the catalyst as the Irish won four of their next five.
The fact that a Mormon from Hawaii who hates cold weather wound 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 big 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 ever beat 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 already 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 prayed again following his freshman season about whether to return or go on a Mormon mission. He did the same thing again a year ago when he was deciding whether to enter the NFL draft or return for his senior season.
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. 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,” he said.