If you were paying attention this college football season, you saw that Notre Dame acquired a fifth horseman.
It wasn’t the 1924 Army game. Nor was Grantland Rice around to write it; or Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Don Miller or Elmer Layden alive to see it, or approve the addition to their lore.
It was a linebacker named Manti Te’o, who performed on a level that made him, arguably, the best player in the game this season. Last week, that argument received validation during the annual postseason awards week. Te’o was a candidate for eight major awards. He won seven of them.
When he arrived at the Pacific Club in Newport Beach on Sunday night as a nominee at the Lott Impact Awards dinner, he was exhausted and exhilarated. His 8,500-mile victory lap was about to end with one more win.
He had been nominated twice previously for the award, named for former USC star defensive back Ronnie Lott and designed to honor the defensive player making the most impact. This year’s announcement was about as shocking as Fighting Irish football fans wearing green.
It was Te’o’s seventh trophy. No other player had won more than five. The only award he was up for that he didn’t win was the Heisman, which went to Texas A&M; freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, further labeling the Heisman, the sport’s top postseason honor, as a celebration of achievement for those who play offense.
Sunday night, Te’o said he had made a friend in Manziel and praised the Heisman experience. But his competitive edge remained.
“When I heard his name announced,” Te’o said, “I felt that burn you get, that somebody else has won. I take it as motivation to get better.”
He has one remaining game in his college career. That is Jan. 7 in Miami, when No. 1 Notre Dame takes on No. 2 Alabama in the Bowl Championship Series title game. Any improvement will merely build on superb numbers, such as 103 tackles, two fumble recoveries and seven interceptions.
The Lott Awards, finale of a long week, might have been one to miss, even with the likelihood of winning. But Te’o is not the no-show type, especially for this event.
“I made a lot of friends here the last two years,” he said. “This was the one I was looking forward to most. Especially after last year.”
It was during his speech at that 2011 dinner, as one of the nominees, that Te’o, a likely high NFL draft choice, announced he would come back for his senior season. That caught many people, including Irish Coach Brian Kelly, by surprise. Suddenly, the Lott dinner was a news event. Sunday night, when Te’o accepted the Lott trophy, the memory made him emotional.
“This event, I hold dear,” he said. “It was here I made maybe the best decision of my life.”
His father, Brian, articulated that decision. “Manti chose a road less taken,” he said.
The 2012 season was a Manti Te’o story book, although not all of the chapters were positive. On Sept. 12, within hours, he was given news that his grandmother in Hawaii and his girlfriend at Stanford had died, the latter after a battle with cancer.
He said girlfriend Lennay Kekau “made me promise, when it happened, that I would stay and play,” Te’o said Sunday night.
Stay and play he did. He was the heart and soul of a team that needed every inch of every organ to get to 12-0. That included stunning goal-line stands and dozens of pressure-packed, inspirational moments. In the middle of each was Te’o.
That led to perhaps his toughest physical test of the season.
Monday, Dec. 3, Te’o and a Notre Dame contingent left South Bend, Ind., at 5:45 a.m. They flew to Charlotte, N.C., to receive the Nagurski Award, for defensive player of the year. Tuesday, it was off to New York City for the National Football Foundation Dinner, where Te’o received an $18,000 grant for postgraduate study, a scholarship endowed by the NFL.
Early Wednesday, it was off to Houston to collect the Lombardi Award for the nation’s best lineman or linebacker. Then Thursday, on to Orlando, Fla., where an ESPN-sponsored show brought him the Walter Camp player-of-the-year award, the Bednarik defensive-player-of-the-year award and the Maxwell player-of-the-year trophy.
Friday, it was back to New York for the Heisman and two days of festivities; Sunday morning on to Los Angeles for the Lott Award.
He has also won the Butkus Award for top linebacker. The usual procedure for that is a surprise ceremony on the player’s campus. Te’o, of course, was never on campus last week, so that trophy will come to South Bend on Monday.
Sunday night, Te’o took a red-eye flight to Chicago and drove on to South Bend. The victory tour had ended and final exams awaited. He has a 3.5 grade-point average in graphic design and will graduate in 31/2 years, although he will stay around Notre Dame this spring so he can walk in May with his graduating class.
His coach, Kelly, was along for the ride this week.
“I wanted to share this, to chase around with him,” Kelly said. “The neat thing is that he is still a college kid. Nothing slick or hip about him. No sound bites.
“I also knew I’ll never see another kid like this.”