POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Oct 31, 2012
“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.” — From the Heisman Trust mission statement
“Te’o’s status as a pure defender is kryptonite to his candidacy.” — Chris Huston, publisher, HeismanPundit.com
Barring an injury or a total collapse by Notre Dame in the next month, Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te’o of Laie will find himself in New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. But I seriously doubt he will win, although he might very well deserve it.
The vague wording of the Heisman Trust’s criteria does make one thing clear: Character and positive intangibles are to be considered. That leaves room for voters to put Te’o somewhere on their ballot — even if they can’t see the tangibles, like his 10 tackles per game and the five interceptions that are more than any other linebacker in the country.
His thriving on the field despite personal tragedy and comforting of others this fall is well-documented, as is his synergistic effect on not just the Fighting Irish’s defense, but the entire team. And that team is 8-0, ranked fourth in the polls and third in the BCS standings, making Notre Dame one notch away from the national championship game at this point.
Te’o is the best player on one of the nation’s best teams. He could have gone pro after last season, but returned to South Bend to graduate, lead the football team and improve his pass defense (he’s made all of his career interceptions this year).
Hmm … that all sounds like excellence, integrity, great ability, diligence, perseverance and hard work.
BUT THE Heisman is plagued by one of the most ridiculous biases in all of sports. Apparently it’s an unwritten rule that someone who plays on defense exclusively isn’t supposed to win it. No defense-only player has ever won.
Some say Hugh Green should have won the Heisman in 1980. The Pitt defensive end was second, to South Carolina running back George Rogers.
I thought it was more of an injustice 11 years later, when Washington defensive tackle Steve Emtman was fourth and the winner was Desmond Howard, a receiver and kick returner from Michigan.
Emtman was unstoppable, and so were the Huskies that year … undefeated national champions. But Emtman played the wrong position, one where stats don’t tell the story. And in those days it was hard to get noticed nationally in that part of the country.
Playing for Notre Dame, Te’o won’t have a publicity problem. The voters know who he is, and after Saturday’s diving interception to preserve the win at Oklahoma he now has a bona fide so-called “Heisman Moment.” That play, that win — and another down-to-earth humble interview after the game — probably punched his ticket to Manhattan.
But the player from the other Manhattan, Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, is the front-runner for the Heisman until the Wildcats lose. I won’t argue against Klein at this point; he means as much if not more to his unbeaten team as Te’o does to his.
HERE’S SOMETHING that will never happen, but would level the playing field if the Heisman winner is supposed to be the best player in college football regardless of position. Simply limit the candidates to the winners of the annual awards for each position. O’Brien, Butkus, Biletnikoff, etc., … yeah, even Groza, just for kicks. Those would be your finalists.
With today’s technology, it could be done. But tradition would never allow it. And it probably won’t allow for a pure defensive player to win the Heisman.
It all makes me think back to the play I most remember by Te’o when he was at Punahou. He was at running back and gained just a few yards. But he broke five tackles doing it. If Notre Dame had used Te’o as a short-yardage fullback from the beginning of the season, he might be leading the Heisman race now.
It’s too late to start that now. It would be perceived as a gimmick, and Manti Te’o is the farthest thing from gimmicky.
Reach Dave Reardon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 529-4783.