Linebackers Passing In The Night

Manti Te’o of Laie is headed to the NFL just as …

Manti Te’o of Laie is headed to the NFL just as …

It wasn’t the way he had hoped his college career would end. It wasn’t the showcase he had earned. For his final collegiate performance, not only did Manti Te’o and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish get dominated from the opening kickoff, but Te’o even was highlighted early on for missing plays he’s known for consistently making.

“We didn’t represent our school, our team, our families the way that we could have,” he said at the post-game press conference, following a 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game last Monday in Miami. “But at the same time, I’m proud to be part of this team. What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger. The best thing about this experience is it creates fire – it creates fuel for both the guys staying here and the guys leaving. Everybody here tonight will be better because of it.”

The Heisman runner-up now will be picked apart by NFL scouts leading up to April’s NFL draft, where he is sure to still be an early selection, though his stock may have taken a hit with some of Alabama’s crushing runs. The Punahou alum will be instantly one of the most well-known and recognizable linebackers the NFL has, thanks to both his on-field exploits for Notre Dame, as well as the off-field story that has made him such a fan and media favorite.

… fellow linebacker Ray Lewis is leaving. AP photos

… fellow linebacker Ray Lewis is leaving. AP photos

As Te’o enters, the league’s most famous line-backer will exit after a 17-year career, which will be long remembered for many reasons. The Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis announced his decision to retire at the end of this season shortly before the playoffs. Lewis will undoubtedly go down as one of the best linebackers in NFL history and the clear class of his era, as well as a player known for leadership, hard work and determination. Yet it’s impossible to discuss Lewis without including the fact that he was once charged with the murder of two young men.

As his career comes to a close, those taking stock of his impact seem divided into two camps. Unlike some other polarizing sports figures – Kobe Bryant, Tim Tebow – whose polarity deals exclusively with performance or attitude, the anti-Lewis camp is based completely on his involvement in or knowledge of two homicides.

I’ve been having a hard time reconciling my own opinion on Lewis. For one, being initially charged with a double-homicide was a clear mistake by the prosecution, who seemed to know from day one that Lewis didn’t directly kill anyone. It’s not as if he beat a murder rap like O.J. Simpson. At most, he had seen what happened and then later helped those who committed the crimes. According to Lewis, even that is far more incriminating than the truth. He maintains he didn’t aid anyone, and the killings were an unfortunate result of a large fight outside a night club.

I have no idea what happened that night in Atlanta 13 years ago, just hours after the Titans-Rams Super Bowl. I don’t know what Lewis saw or what he knows. He pleaded down to one charge of obstruction of justice and took the stand for the prosecution against his two former co-defendants, but he didn’t implicate them in the acts. I’ve read his courtroom testimony and it all seems believable.

What I do know is I’m impressed by Lewis, the man. I don’t know whether he’s a great actor, a great con man, or if his greatness is simply real. I know that whenever I see him in an off-field setting, whether it’s a charity function, building a friendship with a Ravens fan with terminal cancer who has since passed away, leading the team meetings or speaking to young people, my thoughts are always that he’s special. The term “great man” seems to have been coined for a guy like Lewis.

Yet it’s difficult to think that way while also possessing the knowledge that a pair of men – Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24 – were buried so young, regardless of their actions that night, and whose families have never received justice or peace of mind.

With Lewis exiting and Te’o entering, I hope the young man from Laie takes the league by storm and becomes the high-profile linebacker Lewis was, without any of the negative baggage.

Rooting for Lewis required nuance; rooting for Te’o is easy.