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