Heisman Or No, Te’o Is A Hero

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o acknowledges the applause of fans as he leaves his final home game Nov. 17. Notre Dame defeated Wake Forest 38-0.

It hasn’t exactly been a season to remember as far as college football is concerned. The University of Hawaii has struggled in its first year under head coach Norm Chow, winning just one game in its inaugural Mountain West Conference campaign.

The national championship picture became muddled in the final weeks, with only Notre Dame emerging as a foregone conclusion to head to the national title game as other undefeateds fell by the wayside.

Now, as we wait until next month to crown a champion, Hawaii has a horse in a race just as prestigious as the one for the crystal ball.

The Fighting Irish would-n’t be where they are without the leadership, production and overall presence of Manti Te’o. The star linebacker, who led Punahou to its first state football championship in 2008, has become one of the top candidates for the Heisman Trophy. The award will be presented Saturday in New York.

In a year where the top teams haven’t had much star power on offense, it could mark the first time ever that a strictly defensive player takes home the honor. Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson (1997) is the only defensive player to have won it previously, but he also spent some time as a wide receiver and returned punts on special teams.

The question remains: Should Te’o, who has a remarkable personal story of leadership, as well as heartache and adversity, be the one to break through to win this traditionally offensive award?

He played through the pain of having both his grandmother and girlfriend pass away within hours of each other in September, never missing a day of practice and somehow maintaining a level of play of which few dream.

As great as Te’o has been leading the unbeaten Irish in tackles (101) and snagging seven interceptions (a ridiculous stat for an inside linebacker), one of the biggest things he has going for him is an unusual lack of well-known competition. Historically, the top offensive players from the top teams make up the five seats in the front row.

This year hasn’t provided the breakout seasons from top-rated BCS schools like Alabama, Georgia or Florida.

If Oregon had remained in the title picture, running back Kenjon Barner could be a favorite. If USC had managed to stay near its preseason expectations, wide receiver Marqise Lee (or a healthy Matt Barkley) could be the runaway winner. If Kansas State wasn’t throttled by Baylor, quarterback Collin Klein could be a no-brainer.

But we have just one undefeated team (other than sanctioned Ohio State) and it’s relied heavily on its defense. The buzz for Te’o was building over the last month of action and culminated with an interception in the season finale against USC on a national stage.

According to the prognosticators, the biggest competition Te’o will have is from Texas A&M redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel. While he might not be a household name, “Johnny Football” as he has become known, put up monster numbers in his first college season. On his way to leading the Aggies to a 10-2 record that included a 29-24 win over defending champion and then-No. 1 Alabama, Manziel set the Southeastern Conference record for total yards in a season, previously held by Cam Newton. He threw for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns to just eight interceptions, while rushing for another 1,181 yards and 19 scores. That’s 4,600 yards and 43 touchdowns for which Manziel was responsible.

Does that make him more valuable than the best player on one of the nation’s best defenses? It’s so difficult to compare players whose objectives are so diametrically different. One creates, one prevents.

I have a feeling that when the voters sit down to (hopefully) analyze their decisions, they will see those amazing numbers from a first-year QB. Then they’ll notice that the only teams Texas A&M lost to were Florida (ranked fourth in the BCS) and LSU (ranked seventh in the BCS) by a combined eight points. It’s hard to ignore those facts, especially when Heisman voters are pre-disposed to quarterbacks.

After he’s played his final contest for Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami Jan. 7, 2013, Te’o will certainly be remembered as a warrior, a class act and perhaps a champion.

I have a feeling he’ll also be remembered as a Heisman Trophy runner-up.