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Haugh: More than anyone, Notre Dame’s Te’o fits Heisman ideal

Published: Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 9:59 a.m. CST • Updated: Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 10:05 a.m. CST
Caption
(Photo by David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/MCT)
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o poses with the Bronko Nagurski Award on Monday, December 3, 2012, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

(MCT) — Pity the poor assistant athletic director at Notre Dame who probably leafed through the NCAA manual to see if rules allow member institutions to cover shipping costs for student-athletes awarded more trophies than your kid’s soccer team.

Manti Te’o would want everything done the right way, which is how the Notre Dame linebacker made possible this rarest of weeks.

Te’o became only the second college football player to win the Butkus, Nagurski and Lombardi awards in the same season — with more hardware he won Thursday night destined for Hawaii’s sturdiest mantle. The kid used to crossing the Pacific to go home traveled from Charlotte, N.C., to New York to Houston to Orlando, Fla., in successive days for banquets. Now, the Notre Dame linebacker will jet back to New York on Friday for the presentation of his sport’s most prestigious award Saturday night.

His whirlwind week included hearing from Dick Butkus and meeting NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. As famous as Notre Dame’s most popular player since “Rocket” Ismail has become, nobody would be shocked if Pope Benedict tweeted Te’o to wish him good luck.

If there is football justice, Te’o really shouldn’t need it.

With due respect to quarterbacks Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Collin Klein of Kansas State, Te’o deserves the Heisman Trophy for what he did on the field and everything he does off it. For the way he embodies everything that is right about a sport full of too much wrong.

He deserves it for intercepting seven passes and leading a Notre Dame defense that gave up a mere 10.3 points per game. He deserves it for being the best player on the No. 1 team in the country, criteria good enough for past winners like Ohio State’s Troy Smith and Oklahoma’s Jason White.

No, Te’o doesn’t necessarily need to win another trophy to validate The Season of Manti. But college football needs Te’o to beat out Klein and Manziel for the Heisman to boost a sport with an integrity problem.

We have become desensitized to athletic directors and coaches breaking contracts and unethical recruiters considering verbal commitments of teenagers as binding as dinner reservations. We barely bat an eye when news breaks that an NCAA investigation might wipe out Auburn’s national championship, a corrupt road programs such as USC and Ohio State and Miami, among others, know well.

We shrug when a young coach like Dave Doeren leaves Northern Illinois for a richer job 24 hours after NIU’s biggest victory ever, bolting before experiencing the BCS bowl announcement with young men whose trust he built. We laugh when Bret Bielema makes the “Woo Pig Sooie!” call when introduced as the coach at Arkansas, which belongs to the SEC that Bielema didn’t want his Big Ten to resemble “in any way, shape or form” at Wisconsin.

From coaching changes to conference realignment, we have come to expect the unexpected from an amateur sport supposedly rooted in education but driven by the almighty dollar — a sport not always what it seems. We are conditioned to question things that look too good to be true.

Te’o looks too good to be true.

But ask curmudgeonly reporters, the most objective longtime Notre Dame observers or NFL scouts. Te’o isn’t. He represents the real thing, an Academic All-American graduating later this month who hits running backs even harder than the books, a student-athlete who bypassed the NFL draft to savor a college experience so many peers take for granted.

Even without the inspiring narrative of playing within days of the passing of his grandmother and girlfriend, Te’o exhibited the impeccable character the Heisman Trust says matters. Its mission statement reads: “Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance and hard work.”

No Heisman finalist fits that description better.

Tradition and a heavy Southern influence favor Manziel, the dynamic redshirt freshman likely to strike the pose despite it being Te’o’s time. Defense still wins championships. It should have persuaded Heisman voters to reward the most deserving player regardless of position.

Nothing against “Johnny Football,” but Manziel padded his credentials of 4,600 total yards and 43 touchdowns against a lighter schedule. Texas A&M beat two FCS schools and went 1-2 against teams ranked in the final BCS poll. Notre Dame was 3-0 against Top 25 teams and played 12 FBS schools. In those three games against ranked opponents, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Manziel accounted for 90 fewer yards and 3.5 fewer touchdowns. In games Texas A&M led by 21 or more points, Manziel piled up 35 percent of his yards.

Yes, figures lie and liars figure. But as a Heisman candidate, Te’o is the truth. And college football needs something — and someone — to believe in, now more than ever.

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