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Manti Te'o: the linebacker, the narrative, and the Heisman Trophy

This year's Heisman race has been filled with twists and turns, highs and lows, favorites and underdogs. The case for each invited athlete is compelling to be sure, and voters will be looking for a reason to separate one candidate from the rest. We examine why the case for Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o will be made off the field, rather than on.


The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work... The Trustees, who all serve pro bono, are guided by a devotion to college football and are committed to community service and the valued tradition which the Trophy represents.

- The Heisman Trust Mission Statement

In August of each year, college football teams begin quest toward perfection and greatness. The journey is usually several months long, contains moments of great excitement, personal hardships, clutching victory from the jaws of defeat, and confounding critics at every turn. Not every team can reach the end of this journey unharmed, but for the few that do, a spot in the annals of college football history is the final reward.

Players on these teams all have the same goal – to achieve perfection. But they also have personal goals. College football is the ultimate team sport, where a player's (and ultimately a team's) mettle is only as strong as your backup. But individual players do have opportunities to which their teams cannot aspire.

The Heisman Trophy is that opportunity for the individual player. Each year, the Heisman Trust recognizes the country's best individual player who, as stated above, best exhibits the pursuit of excellence in college football. This award is by far the epitome of greatness in college football, and the dream of any person who has ever held a football in their back yard, and struck the familiar, stiff-armed pose.

This year's Heisman Trophy race has been a battle much like any other year. Preseason favorites, with the sole goal of ending the SEC's reign of terror in the BCS era gave way to leaders of offensive juggernauts, seemingly unstoppable in their assault. This, in turn, gave way to a quarterback-turned-video-game, not even at the full width and breath of his abilities. From there, a senior quarterback from a non-traditional power took the reins, only to be de-throned by a freshman world-beater with an affinity for animated dogs. And the one candidate who may beat all of them is the leader of one of the nation's best defenses.

Manti Te'o committed to Notre Dame in 2009 amid much hoopla and hula. The Hawaiian linebacker, by many considered the best football player the state has ever produced, turned down UCLA and USC, long thought to be obvious choices for him, to attend Notre Dame. If you think religion had anything to do with, you would be wrong, as Te'o is a devout and practicing Mormon. But the marriage between ND and Te'o was made, and the linebacker grew in his first three years at Notre Dame. As a senior, he is now the leader of a defense that has been the best part of Notre Dame football since 1988.

In only four occasions has a defensive player won the Heisman Trophy: Yale's Larry Kelley in 1936, Notre Dame's Leon Hart in 1949, Syracuse's Ernie Davis in 1961 and, most recently, Michigan's Charles Woodson in 1997. In two of those cases, Hart's and Woodson's, that player's team went on to win a national championship. If Te'o is to become the fifth defensive Heisman winner, he will do so with a deck stacked far out of his favor, based on those invited to New York with him.

There are many, many defensive statistics and metrics that can be applied to a defensive player to prove their worth on defense. Consider this blind statistical look at two players:

Player Total Tackles Tackles/Loss Sacks Interceptions Pass BUs Pass Def'd
X 115 17 5 1 11 12
Y 103 5.5 1.5 7 4 11

Player X above has more tackles, over three times as many tackles for loss, 4.5 more sacks, and better statistics against the pass, where as Player Y has a huge edge in interceptions. Based on the statistics alone, one might be a bit more apt to say the Player X had the better defensive season, and is the player deserving of national acclaim and adoration.

Player Y is Manti Te'o. Player X is Ohio State sophomore linebacker Ryan Shazier. Both share the distinction of being star linebackers on undefeated teams. Shazier's season, due in no part to his own actions, ended after the Buckeyes win over Michigan. Te'o has the chance to win a national championship. If Te'o is going to win the Heisman, it is not going to be on the strength of his numbers; there are clearly candidates that have better statistics. The factors that will drive voters to select Te'o as the most exceptional college football player are all off the field.

Which is what makes the likelihood of his winning that much greater.


Every Heisman trophy winner has a narrative driving their candidacy. Recently, Troy Smith led an undefeated Ohio State team, and made a statement in the Game of the Century against Michigan in 2006. Tim Tebow was a kid who went on mission trips between jump-passing his way to his trophy in 2007. Cam Newton overcame adversity (mostly of his own doing) to become the starter at Auburn and put up gaudy stats en route to a title game in 2010.

Te'o's story is even better.

On September 22nd, Te'o played in a prime-time game, trying to get his team to 4-0 for the first time since 2002. The game was against Michigan, one of Notre Dame's rival games (and they're all rivalry games to Domers) and he recorded eight tackles, one for a loss, and two interceptions en route to a 13-6 win that was never that close. Te'o did all of this after hearing that his girlfriend and grandmother had both passed away earlier that week. "She just wanted some white roses and that's all she asked for," Te'o said. "So I sent her some roses and sent her two picks along with that."

Shortly after, Te'o wrote an email to the parents of a 12 year old Notre Dame (and Te'o) fan, trying to ease their pain as their daughter battled terminal brain cancer. He played his heart out after losing two people, then poured his heart out to complete strangers to comfort them.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is as good a Heisman narrative as can be constructed.

The narrative doesn't shape the award alone. Braxton Miller took an Ohio State team from 6-7 to 12-0, and did so with over 2,000 yards passing and over 1,200 yards rushing. Collin Klein has been the most consistent candidate all year, amassing almost 2500 yards passing, 890 rushing and 37 combined touchdowns. And the media favorite, Johnny Manziel, has thrown for over 3,400 yards and rushed for over 1,100, with 43 total touchdowns on the year. And he already beat the team that Te'o has yet to play. As a freshman.

But if voters look past on the field accomplishments, and view the finalists as people who not only excel on between the sidelines, but as players who "epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work," then Te'o will win the Heisman Trophy, whether he deserves it more than the others or not.

We live in a sports world that is driven more and more by a narrative. Ohio State's narrative this year was one of proving critics wrong and showing that last year was simply a prelude to the Urban Meyer era in Columbus. LeBron James, the 2012 SI Sportsman of the Year for some reason, finally won his first NBA title. For Te'o, his narrative is playing all-star defense on one of the most popular teams in the world, and playing at that level through great adversity. The narrative isn't all you need on your side to win an award like this. But for Te'o, it might be enough.