The Case for Manti Te'o

Go back to November 22, 2008. The dismal Syracuse Orange (3-8) were playing at Notre Dame Stadium against the Irish (6-5). Notre Dame lost, 24-23. The game got so bad that the fans started throwing snowballs at their own players. At that time, little did anybody know that the seeds for the 12-0 season in 2012 would be planted. Attending that game, in the cold temperatures, was a recruit out of Hawaii named Manti Te’o. Something that day struck Te’o, and for some reason he choose to come to South Bend, Indiana, to play college football. It must have been the same reason that earlier this year caused Te’o, projected to be a first round draft pick in the NFL, to turn down the millions of dollars and come back for one more year at Notre Dame.

What a decision that turned out to be. The Irish are 12-0 and will play on January 7, 2012 for the national championship.

The 2012 Notre Dame Fighting Irish were led by their defense all year – the best defense in college football (although they are technically second in points allowed to Alabama , whose defense is also incredible). The leader of that defense – which includes, as Eric Murtaugh put it, "an All-American defensive end, perhaps the nation's best nose guard, and a possible freshman All-American at corner" – is the All-American linebacker, Manti Te’o. There is no question about it – Te’o is the best defensive player in the country. No, he’s more than that. He’s the best player in the country, period.

Te’o is the unquestioned leader of the Fighting Irish; the best player on the best team. Heisman? All Te’o and the Irish faithful want is a national championship. But that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t win the Heisman.

The official Heisman mission statement says that:

"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."

Manti Te’o represents all that the Heisman Trustees want a Heisman winner to represent.

Right now, it seems that the Heisman race is between a freshman quarterback and a senior linebacker. The Heisman voters have never given the award to a freshman, and the Heisman voters have also never given the award to a true defender . They are going to have to give it to one of them this year. The current odds stand at 1/6 for the freshman, Johhny Manziel , with Te’o coming in second at 7/2.

Manti Te’o should win the Heisman trophy, and here’s why:

1. Te’o is the best player on the nation’s best team

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are 12-0 and ranked number 1 in the BCS, AP, and coaches polls. They have all but locked up a trip to Miami to play for a national title on January 7th, 2013. But if it weren’t for Manti Te’o, there would be no national title. There would be no 12-0 season. There may not even be a BCS game. This is nothing at all against the other defenders, who all have played tremendous football this year and would still lead a very good unit without Te’o. But the leadership Te’o has brought cannot be overstated. The attitude he brought cannot be overlooked. And the play he brought is what makes him a Heisman candidate in the first place. Te’o made a huge impact in every game this season, and it is safe to say that without number 5, the Irish would be without a perfect season as well.

2. Te’o elevated his game when the stage was the biggest

Let’s consider for a minute the games Notre Dame played against ranked teams:

  • 20-3 win at #10 Michigan State – Te’o notched 12 tackles, one for loss, and batted down two passes just days after his grandmother and girlfriend had passed away.
  • 16-9 win over #18 Michigan – Te’o recorded 8 tackles and picked off two passes on the night of his girlfriend’s funeral.
  • 20-13 win over #17 Stanford (OT) – Te’o notched 11 tackles and the defense made an incredible goal line stand to win the game for the Irish in overtime.
  • 30-13 win at #8 Oklahoma – Te’o had 11 tackles, a sack, and a pick and helped the defense shut down the best offense the Irish played all year, on the road.
  • Also, Notre Dame won five games by one score or less. In those games, Te’o averaged 9.2 tackles per game, up from his seasonal average of 8.6. In games decided by more than one score, Te’o averaged 8.1 tackles per game. So basically, when the Irish won in a one-possession game, Te’o made nearly a tackle more per game than when they were up by more than one score. Does this matter much? Nope – but it’s still interesting.

    3. Intangibles

    No player in the country is better at this category than Manti Te’o. From the decision to delay his NFL career for one more year and return to the University to his poise on the football field, Te’o is the unquestioned leader of this 12-0 Fighting Irish squad. The character he showed throughout his four years at Notre Dame was exactly in line with what a Golden Domer should be. That character was tested when, in September, Te’o’s grandmother and girlfriend both passed away just days apart. He decided to stay with his teammates at Notre Dame, and that weekend he recorded 12 tackles in the huge aforementioned win over a top ten Michigan State team on the road. Te’o is not only the perfect player to represent Notre Dame, but the perfect player to represent the Heisman as well.

    Just a few days ago, on Thursday, Te’o received the honor of being named the College Football Sportsman of the Year by the Awards and Recognition Association. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick said of Te’o:

    "It's hard to imagine a more deserving candidate of an award that carries the characteristics of this one than Manti… Maybe a Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, maybe a Derek Jeter in New York, maybe a Bill Bradley at Princeton---but in the history of sports, it's rare [to have an athlete represent their team in such a way that Te’o has]… We have been very fortunate at Notre Dame in the last four year--culminating with this year--to have a student athlete that so perfectly captures the values of the institution."

    4. This is the year

    If a true defender were ever to win the Heisman, this is the year. There is no clear frontrunner and there are few candidates even in the discussion. The other main candidate aside from Te’o is a freshman, who voters may be hesitant to give the Heisman to. And lastly, amid the scandals of schools like Ohio State and then Penn State, college football has received bad press in the last year or two, especially with the Penn State fiasco. There still is a lot of good left in college football, and Manti Te’o is a representation of that. The Heisman winner should not only represent extraordinary play on the field, but off it as well. Te’o is that player. I am in no way saying that Johnny Football isn’t that player, but Manti Te’o brought the leadership, character, and passion that inspired a team that pre-season was supposed to get 8-9 wins to a perfect record and a national championship berth. All the while, he put school and relationships first - he is set to graduate early in just a few weeks. And he did it all well.

    Not only is Manti Te’o one of the greats to ever wear a golden helmet and run out the tunnel while hitting that "Play Like a Champion" today sign, but he acted like a champion as well. And that’s what the Heisman is all about – being a champion, both on and off the field.

    Said head coach Brian Kelly after the USC game:

    "If a guy like Manti Te'o's not going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award," Kelly said afterward. "Give it to the offensive player every year, and let's just cut to the chase. He is the backbone of a 12-0 football team that has proven itself each and every week… If the Heisman Trophy is what it is, I just don't know how Manti Te'o is left out of that conversation."

    Manti Te’o isn’t worrying about the Heisman – he wants to hold that crystal football so much more than that bronze trophy, and Notre Dame fans want the same. But Te’o not only deserves a national championship, he deserves the Heisman. He’s not just the best player on the best team – he’s the best player on any team.

    He is Manti.

    HeisManti, to be exact.

    Josh Wilson covers the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts for the SB Nation site Stampede Blue. He is also an avid Notre Dame fan. You can follow him on twitter @coltsfanwilson.

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