(MCT) — Only one lei ringed Manti Te’o’s neck and shoulders as quiet settled on Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, just one rainbow-colored string of small flowers and not the earlobe-high stack of festive bands he sported a week earlier.
It was a simple statement of celebration after a simple statement worth celebrating: Notre Dame was in the national title game, and this splendid night was all he came back for and more. Te’o left the field in buoyant, giant gallops, at a loss for any words that didn’t emerge as screams.
“If there’s anything I can say, the Heavenly Father answers prayers in ways you don’t know,” Te’o said.
“And you may not see it at the time. At the time, it may seem like the odds of something happening are crazy. I’ve been an example that if you pray and actually listen and have faith, he will provide a way for you to do it. I’m grateful I was smart enough to listen.”
Te’o came back for this, to lead Notre Dame one more time, and his team followed to 12 wins and no losses and a No. 1 ranking and a BCS title game berth Jan. 7. What he could not have considered as even a possibility was the Heisman Trophy decision that arrives Dec. 8 and, possibly, renders him a legend.
Needing one last statement to fortify his presence at the Heisman ceremony and give him a shot to win it, the senior linebacker recorded his seventh interception of the season in Saturday night’s victory over USC while getting one-eleventh of the credit for the eye-opening goal-line stand that cleared the path to South Florida.
With no more games, Te’o literally can do no more.
“If a guy like Manti Te’o is not going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Just 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 don’t know how Manti Te’o is left out of that conversation.”
When Kansas State’s Collin Klein threw three interceptions in a loss to Baylor on Nov. 17, Te’o surged in the Heisman straw polls. But he remained second to Johnny Manziel, aka Johnny Football, Texas A&M’s storm surge of a quarterback who on Saturday set the SEC single-season record for total yards with 4,600.
It’s one force Te’o won’t have the opportunity to stop. Manziel has numbers and cachet and, in a swift stroke by Texas A&M, will speak to the media for the first time Monday, just as everyone considers their ballots. Te’o has cachet and glitz to spare, too, but his closing statement revolves around the unseen.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a leader of a team who matches the values of the team he represents as well as Manti Te’o. He is the perfect guy to lead the resurrection of this program.”
Before the USC game, Te’o stopped into the tunnel to meet with Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley, another player who deferred NFL riches but wound up saddled with five losses and a right arm hung limp on Senior Day thanks to a shoulder injury a week before.
“Matt Barkley is my friend,” Te’o said. “My heart went out to him. I made sure I went over to him before he ran out for the last time and just told him to enjoy it.”
So it was Te’o leaving the Coliseum field in joy, hugging Kelly in the tunnel and embracing a scene that was a dream come true.
Weeks ago, as the Notre Dame community rallied around him after the death of his grandmother and his girlfriend, he said he knew he had made the right decision to return. He didn’t know how right he was.
“Notre Dame should be at the top,” Te’o said. “I’m just grateful to be part of that whole process.”