(Image courtesy of Bleacher Report)
By Kevin Jarboe
The Heisman Trophy is one of the most revered awards in all of sports. It has been bestowed upon some of the greatest athletes to ever grace a football field; from Roger Staubach to Barry Sanders. It has been won by players that never amounted to anything in the NFL; like Chris Weinke and Troy Smith. It has caused controversey (Reggie Bush, Cam Newton), and joy (Robert Griffin III). It is the award that best defines a player’s collegiate career. It defines them, puts them in a fraternity unlike any other. Manti Te’o deserves to join this fraternity.
2012, not unlike other seasons, has seen a rolodex-sized list of names rotated in and out of the Heisman discussion. Matt Barkley was supposed to be a lock for the award. Geno Smith took the drivers seat for a little bit. Even Air Force’s running back Cody Getz got his name thrown into the ring. It is a bizarre season in college football. There is no standout in the Heisman race, no one player running away with the award. In a season that is not showing any remarkable performances on offense, 2012 is the perfect time to award it to a deserving defensive player. That player is Notre Dame’s T’eo.
Te’o, if you somehow haven’t heard of him, is Notre Dame’s 6-foot-2-inch middle linebacker. The anchor of their dominating defense, through six games Te’o has racked up 59 tackles, 24 of which have been solo. His three interceptions for 28 total yards are second on the team. The unit that Te’o leads is currently ranked 11th in the country in total defense. They have given up only 1,722 yards to it’s opponents.
Even more staggering are Notre Dame’s opponents success in the red zone. Any time an opponent enters the red zone against Notre Dame this season, they average two points per trip. Notre Dame’s red zone defense is far and above the best in the country. It has allowed only 16 red zone entrances, yielding two passing touchdowns and six field goals. Head coach Brian Kelly came to Notre Dame with a blueprint of a dominating defense up front that would keep games close and giving the defense an opportunity to close out games with it’s toughness. That is exactly what Te’o has done.
It is hard to judge defensive players by their stats. That is likely why there hasn’t been a defensive player to win the Heisman since 1997 in Michigan’s cornerback Charles Woodson, but even he played a little on offense (catching 12 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns in ’97). Nebraska’s defensive end Ndamokung Suh came close in 2009 when he racked 85 tackles (52 solo), 12 sacks, an interception and three blocked kicks. Suh lost out to Mark Ingram out of Alabama, who rushed for 1,542 yards and 15 touchdowns along with 322 yards receiving and an additional three touchdowns.
Looking back, Suh was without a doubt the most dominating college player in 2009. In a year where there was no superstar offensive player (Newton and Griffin III, for example), the award should have been Suh’s. The problem that Suh ran into was that he was playing for a Nebraska team that did not have a vast audience around the country. Heisman votes are divvied up among six regions: Far West, Mid Atlantic, Mid West, North East, South, and Southwest.
Te’o's biggest advantage in the Heisman race is in that he plays for Notre Dame. Notre Dame has one of the biggest fan bases in all of sports. They have an exclusive television deal with NBC so that their games will be broadcasted nationwide. A Notre Dame hat in Los Angeles or New Mexico is just as common as a Yankee hat in New York. They are the most recognizable college program in the country, maybe even the world. NBC’s partnership with eurosports broadcast’s Notre Dame’s home games to an additional 62 countries. Where Suh had a problem getting votes in the North East or Far West regions, Te’o would have no problem.
Te’o’s season this year may not be as dominating as Suh’s was in 2009 or Woodson’s in 1997, but his deserving of the trophy extends outside of football.
It is impossible to not have heard the story, but in mid-September Te’o had an unimaginable week. While prepping for Notre Dame’s rivalry game at Michigan State on September 15th, Te’o got word that his grandmother, who lives in his native Hawaii, had passed away. A day later, Te’o was struck with the news that his longtime girlfriend who was battling leukemia had also passed away. Imagine that scenario. You are a 21-year-old kid from Hawaii, playing football in Indiana, and you lose your grandmother. Your entire family is in Hawaii, 4,299.81 miles away. Not even a day after hearing the news of his grandma, Te’o’s only other form of support, his longtime girlfriend, dies unexpectadly from a cancer that she thought she had beaten.
That is enough to make any man, regardless of age or profession, pack it all in and go home. Not Manti Te’o. Te’o elected to not go back to Hawaii to grieve, instead staying with the Fighting Irish and leaning on his teammates and coaches for support. The emotional and physical leader of this team leaning on the people he inspires for help. At the time, Notre Dame was 2-0 but entering a grudge match against then-ranked Michigan State. Te’o stayed, Te’o played, and he played magnificantly: 12 tackles (7 solo), two pass deflections and a 20-3 victory over the Spartans. Sometimes when it comes down to the Heisman all it takes to shift the power of control is one game that defines you. I don’t know if anyone has ever had a game like Te’o did considering all the factors.
It wasn’t just the game against Michigan State, either. Te’o has not once left the team since his week of tragedy. The next week he had eight tackles and two interceptions in the win over Michigan. A week later he puts up 10 tackles in a 41-3 throttling of Miami. And then last week against #17 Stanford, Te’o (11 tackles) lead the goal-line stand in overtime to give Notre Dame their sixth straight win and kept them in the hunt for the National Championship.
Te’o’s catapult in the Heisman rankings is not without other factors. Geno Smith lost some of his ground in the race with a so-so performance in West Virginia’s loss to Texas Tech. Matt Barkley has not fully recovered since USC’s loss to Stanford. There really hasn’t been any player in college football making a significant claim for the trophy. In my mind, right now Te’o has to be in the lead.
Te’o’s presence at Notre Dame has reenergized one of the most legendary programs in sports. He is arguably the best player to go through Notre Dame since Tim Brown left in 1988. More than that, Te’o has Notre Dame in contention for the National Championship for the first time in…well, a long time.
The Heisman trophy is not supposed to be a “legacy” award. It is supposed to go to the most outstanding player of the given season, not a career. If that were the case, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck would have one. However, in terms of Te’o you have to take into consideration everything he has done for the Notre Dame program since he famously changed his mind from USC four years ago.
Te’o’s work is not over. He likely does not care about the Heisman Trophy, just how Notre Dame does week to week. Don’t be fooled, the two things are directly correlated. If Notre Dame can continue it’s winning streak, and looking at their schedule they could, Te’o’s claim to the Heisman will grow and grow. Looking at the schedule, the season comes down to two Saturday’s: October 27th in Oklahoma against the Sooners, and November 24th at USC. Two (as of now) top-10 ranked teams in the country, two teams with explosive offenses, and two teams that Te’o can define his collegiate career against. By December, we could see two things that haven’t happened in a very long time: A defensive player winning the Heisman, and Notre Dame in the National Championship.
Doing the research on Te’o and his story, I really learned something. One, that he totally deserves the Heisman Trophy. He is one of the most important players in all of college football, someone that means more to his team than anyone else in the country. But other than that, I learned that Te’o is already a success story. It doesn’t matter if he wins the Heisman or becomes an NFL superstar. Looking at how he carries himself and how he has dealt with his personal tragedies, Te’o is already a better man than many others that he walks with. In a sports world where the stories are dominated by kids carrying guns and doing drugs to derail their futures, Te’o stands as a true success story. I talked about Te’o being able to define his collegiate career in the coming weeks. That may or may not happen, but Te’o has already defined something much more important; his life. He’s more than just a football player, more than a Heisman candidate. He is a person that spews true humanity, humbleness, and appreciation. I hope that he wins the Heisman Trophy, I think that he deserves it. But don’t be fooled, Te’o has already accomplished so much more.