As the Notre Dame football team continues its return to prominence, one player has virtually carried the team to its unbeaten record and third-place BCS ranking, linebacker Manti Te'o. Fittingly for the Fighting Irish, their fans, and alumni like me, Notre Dame's best player is once again the middle of the race for the most coveted individual award in sports, the Heisman Trophy.
Notre Dame has produced more Heisman Trophy winners than any other school, with seven. But no player who played solely on the defensive side of the ball has ever won. Charles Woodson was mostly a cornerback when he won at Michigan in 1997, but he also played wide receiver and returned kicks. Te'o plays only linebacker, and has a chance to break the Heisman defensive drought.
"To me the Heisman has lost credibility to a degree because it now looks like a stat or highlight award and I think there's a great opportunity for the Heisman to redefine itself,'' said Brian Bosworth, who finished fourth in the voting as a linebacker for Oklahoma in 1986, before Te'o and the Irish upset his Sooners in Norman. "Don't watch highlights, watch game film. Take away the pinball numbers and go back to what the award really embodies: A player who puts his personality stamp on a team. What team makes that player's soul the tattoo on its arm?''
Have no doubt, the Fighting Irish are Manti Te'o's team. As Bosworth suggests, they personify his non-stop toughness. He has carried this team in a way normally reserved for quarterbacks or running backs.
But Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly insists that his players remain focused on the main goal, winning the national championship, and Te'o is happy to keep the team goal in mind rather than any individual accolades.
"I view myself as an integral part of this team and I just want to win," Te'o said after the Irish defeated Brigham Young. "As I said after spring, my whole goal is to win and if I win a Heisman or if I even get invited to New York, I'll be happy, I'll be humbled and happy. But as long as I'm winning, I'll enjoy that."
While Kelly remains focused on week-to-week wins, he is quick to praise his senior linebacker, even while recognizing the hurdles defensive players must face in the Heisman race.
"What is the definition of a Heisman Trophy candidate?" Kelly wonders. "If you go with he has to be a quarterback or an offensive player, well, I don't think he plays on offense. But if you're looking for one of the best, if not the best college football players that impacts your program...You're also judged by how you impact your team and what you do on the defensive side of the ball. So Heisman Trophy, MVP, top collegiate player, we think he fits those categories."
So do Fighting Irish fans across the country. It would take exceptional circumstances for a defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. But with Notre Dame returning to past glory and poised for a possible unbeaten season, and Te'o so clearly the best player on the field in every game he plays, this could be that magical season.
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