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Gastelum: It’s not hype anymore: Te’o deserves the Heisman (Oct. 29)

Andrew Gastleum | Monday, October 29, 2012

NORMAN, Okla. – You know something special when you see it.

What we saw in primetime at Memorial Stadium, that was it.

A special victory at a special time, led by a special player.

For Manti Te’o, this is a special year. So it should be speculation no more: He deserves the Heisman.

This is a Notre Dame team that is 8-0, the only team in the country with four wins over top-25 teams – including two road wins over top-10 teams.

This is a Notre Dame team that was expected to struggle with a first-year quarterback and the toughest schedule in college football.

This is a Notre Dame team with one of the country’s top defenses, giving up less than 10 points per game with only one rushing touchdown allowed since last November.

This is Te’o’s team.

Most Heisman candidates represent their respective teams.

Yet this Irish team represents Te’o, the best compliment a player can ask for. His incredible work ethic, his levelheadedness and his whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts mentality all shine through this team, from the veteran offensive line returning four starters to the young secondary with three players converted from offense.

This linebacker’s influence can be heard, seen and felt on the field, even when he’s not on it. The last time college football saw a player like that, Tim Tebow told the world no one would work as hard as he would for the rest of the season.
And on the biggest stage of his legendary career Saturday night, Te’o’s legend grew.

When the Notre Dame offense could not sustain a drive of more than two minutes in the first quarter, Te’o recorded eight tackles and gave the offense a chance to find itself without having to play catch up. With one of those first-quarter tackles, Te’o recorded his 400th career tackle, just another testament to one of the greatest collegiate careers in Notre Dame history.

He finished the first half with 11 tackles – two for a loss – and his first sack of the season. That massive second-quarter sack by Te’o sent the up-tempo Oklahoma offense to the sidelines with its first three-and-out, right after it seemed to drive down the field with ease in the first quarter.

And with his sprawling fourth-quarter interception, Te’o silenced any chance of a Landry Jones-led comeback and sealed the victory, putting him tied for second in the entire country with five interceptions.

He hasn’t thrown for four passing touchdowns and 300 yards. He hasn’t even scored a touchdown at all. And yet he can change the course of an entire game from the side of the ball that prevents points, not scores them.

Since the preseason, Marcus Lattimore, Matt Barkley, E.J. Manuel, Geno Smith and now Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein have all taken their turns atop the presumptive Heisman list.

Since his inspired performance at Michigan State in Week 3, Te’o has remained near the top of that list and improved his status while watching the frontrunner crash out on weekly basis.

While one loss can ruin the Heisman hopes of Klein – as it did to Barkley, Manuel and Smith – a loss for Te’o will not muffle the Heisman noise. He simply means too much to the sport.

And as we’ve seen with Robert Griffin III, Mark Ingram and Tebow, it’s not just about the stat sheet.

“He represents all of the things the Heisman trophy espouses: integrity, character, a great football player,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said postgame.

The way he inspired an island, a university and a nation through personal tragedy showed the character of a true champion. The stories of helping a young and dying cancer patient and her family showed the integrity of a true hero. The answer to the following question showed the linebacker’s heart.

“Have you been able to comprehend the number of people that you have affected in a positive manner?” I asked Te’o after the game.

His response was swift.

“No, not really,” he replied. “For me, I’m just trying to have an impact on as many people as possible. If that’s one, if that’s 10 or 20 I don’t really know. As long as I change somebody’s life, I would consider that a success for me.”

His words read of honor, humility and sacrifice, but all I read was Heisman.

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agastel1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.