No Heisman moment, then no Heisman for Irish’s Te’o

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comDecember 9, 2012 

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday. The redshirt freshman was marked first on 474 ballots, including mine.

But I was conflicted. I voted for “Johnny Football,” and yet deep in my heart – or as deep as my heart gets about these things – I wanted Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o to become the first strictly defensive player to receive America’s most prestigious individual sports award.

So why did I submit a ballot with Te’o, the guy I wanted to win, in second place instead of first place?

One play. That’s what the 2012 Heisman Trophy race came down to: One special, jaw-dropping play capable of defining a transcendent season. Te’o didn’t have one.

The senior’s candidacy had everything else. He was the premier player on college football’s top-ranked team, a devout Mormon who became an inspirational leader on the campus of the nation’s best-known Catholic university. And while it’s difficult for linebackers to accrue gaudy statistics, Te’o intercepted seven passes and broke up four others.

Most of all, Te’o appealed to those of us who are eager to see the award, which almost always is won by either a quarterback or a running back, distributed to somebody on the other side of the ball. I’ll say it again: I wanted to vote for Manti Te’o. I just needed a play – one play, one signature “Heisman Moment” – to support the case for Te’o over Manziel.

Take touchdowns, for instance. Manziel passed for 24 of them and ran for 19 others, and while it’s true that more than half of those scores were achieved out of the Southeastern Conference – against Southern Methodist, South Carolina State, Louisiana Tech and Sam Houston State, Manziel accounted for 22 touchdowns – Te’o finished with none.

It’s rare for a linebacker to find his way into the end zone, I know, but isn’t the Heisman Trophy supposed to symbolize rarity? Te’o returned an interception 28 yards against Michigan, and returned another, against Brigham Young, for 7 yards. Sorry. If I’m voting for a linebacker to buck Heisman history, I need a touchdown, or a forced fumble, or a sack that’s scored as a safety. I need more than 35 yards in interception returns.

When one candidate is the personification of a highlight video – check out Manziel’s work on You Tube – and another is constrained by the mundane chores of his position, it’s tough to choose the dynamite linebacker over the dazzling quarterback.

If this makes me sound shallow, so be it. Although Notre Dame is on television, to borrow former UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun’s line about Duke “more than reruns of Leave It To Beaver,” and I grew up (and remain) a fan of the Fighting Irish, I didn’t watch every minute of every Irish game. I saw even less of Texas A&M and, for that matter, Kansas State (whose quarterback, Collin Klein, ranked third on my ballot).

I’ve got a job that prevents me from spending 14 hours in front of a TV each Saturday, because I’m often in a stadium press box covering college football. It’s possible to monitor other games, but that’s about all I can do: monitor. Sort of watch, but not really. Paying attention to any game but the one in front of you can be an occupational hazard for a sportswriter.

From my perspective, the outstanding defensive-play effort of 2012 was turned in – don’t laugh – during overtime of the Apple Cup, when Washington State tackle Kalafitoni Pole converted Keith Price’s ill-chosen decision to lob a desperation pass into almost a touchdown. It wasn’t a touchdown because Washington receiver Cody Bruns never gave up. And although the Huskies went on to lose moments later, Bruns’ sprint to wrap up Pole and save the game, a few strides shy of the goal line, symbolized the essence of clutch.

A Heisman moment? If Bruns had caught 70 more passes during his senior season, and scored 20 more touchdowns – if fans on both coasts recognized him as “Cody Football” – well, it might’ve been.

Instead, the award went to Manziel. Over the course of a mere year, he evolved from scout teamer to the quarterback who engineered Texas A&M’s road upset of Alabama’s seemingly unbeatable Crimson Tide. On Saturday, 48 hours removed from his 20th birthday, he became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.

Here’s to the kid who delivered an acceptance speech with grace, poise and humility. I’m happy to have voted for him.

But I would’ve been happier if Manti Te’o made a play 474 Heisman Trophy voters couldn’t forget.

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