Whether or not Manti Te’o ends up a Heisman Trophy candidate is hardly the point.
But you can’t blame many of us looking for ways to quantify the senior linebacker’s greatness, both on and off the field. At a position where stats only tell part of the story of a player’s dominance, midseason All-American nominations, Sports Illustrated covers, and glowing national columnists profiling the Hawaiian leader of the Irish don’t necessarily miss the point, but they largely don’t do Te’o justice either.
That Te’o is a terrific football player, the best defender to play at Notre Dame in countless years, isn’t what makes him the subject of just about universal praise. It’s that greatness combined with the stoic determination he has shown in the face of mind-numbing adversity, showing a grace and composure when talking candidly about grieving two personal losses, and putting into perspective what football has meant to him throughout all of it.
That’s what makes just about everybody, including Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, rave about Te’o’s leadership.
“Unquestionably, as a leader, there has not been anybody in my 22 years who has been a better leader both on and off the field, and represent the kind of ideals you want in college football,’’ Kelly said. “And I don’t think it’s close.’’
The decision to return for his senior season, made without family deliberations or NFL advice, set the table for Te’o’s legend to build. But his exemplary work both on and off the field this fall, and the mutual admiration that he shares with Notre Dame and its community, has put him on a pedestal we haven’t seen in decades.
In an era where sporting icons seem to crumble by the week, a 21-year-old Mormon athlete from Hawaii is forcing his way onto Notre Dame’s Mount Rushmore.
“Time will test this, but I think when we look back 10 years from now, he’ll be at the very top of that list,” athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “He’ll be with Montana and Huarte and Brown, Hornung.”
“Not only was he great, not only was he a member of a very good team, he had that once-in-a-lifetime intersection of who a person is, and who the institution he represents is. The match is so perfect it feels preordained.”
The most recent example of that intersection wasn’t on Saturday night, where his eleven tackles helped stop Stanford in their tracks. It was during a media blitz, where Te’o spent 15 minutes with sports talk icon Jim Rome. The interview spent some time on football, but delved deeper into the personal struggles Te’o has dealt with over the past few weeks, and the resolve and faith inside of him that has gotten him through the difficult times.
For a talk show host that’s made his living talking with interesting guests, it’s no small feat that Te’o floored Rome just like he has hundreds of ball carriers.
“I am speechless after that conversation with Manti Te’o,” Rome tweeted yesterday to his 933,170 followers. “One of the most astonishing, inspiring conversations I’ve ever had with an athlete.”
The tweet spread like wildfire across the internet yesterday, echoing across the superhighway more than a thousand times. Interviews like this will only help push Te’o’s candidacy for postseason awards and recognition to new heights, doing more for Te’o than any campaign launched from under the golden dome.
But in the end, it really doesn’t matter. Whether or not Te’o heads to New York for the sports most prestigious award doesn’t matter. Whether or not he continues to will an Irish team with a mediocre offense to improbable victories, isn’t going to quantify what makes Te’o great.
While the Irish defense continues to hold opponents out of the end zone, don’t expect any debates to stop. But with just seven games left in his collegiate career, don’t let the minutiae get in the way.
Manti Te’o is a special football player. And an even better human being.
Leave the rest of it to somebody else.