Te’o leads Irish defense, key to perfect season

If Manti Te’o’s career at Notre Dame has seemed like something

straight out of a Hollywood script, perhaps it’s 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.

If Thursday night’s Home Depot College Football Awards show is

any indication of how the Heisman voting will go, Te’o stands a

strong chance of hoisting the iconic trophy in New York. He

collected three more awards at Disney World, including the Maxwell,

which is given to the nation’s most outstanding player. He has

picked up six big national honors since the end of the regular

season (Bednarik Award, Butkus Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy,

Lombardi Award and Walter Camp national player of the year

award).

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.

Te’o hopes he’ll leave a legacy, which he surely will if the

Irish beat Alabama next month and win their first national

championship since 1988. But the main thing he wants is to be

remembered as someone who gave his best.

”If you don’t do things to be the best at it, why are you doing

it? So I’m just trying to be the best,” he said. ”Once I leave

here, I hope that the impact I’ve made not only on the football

field but in people’s lives will forever be remembered.”

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AP Sports Writer Jeff Latzke in Norman, Okla., contributed to

this report.