12/07/12 — Stevens: Notre Dame's Te'o epitomizes characteristics of Heisman winner

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Stevens: Notre Dame's Te'o epitomizes characteristics of Heisman winner

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on December 7, 2012 1:47 PM

Excellence was once defined as not a destination, but a continuous journey that never ends.

Manti Te'o's journey as a highly-coveted high school linebacker from Laie, Hawaii, to a Heisman Trophy finalist at Notre Dame has taken many twists and turns.

Te'o nearly committed to the University of Southern California before a gut feeling on his recruiting visit to Notre Dame on a cold, dreary afternoon led him to make South Bend, Ind., his home for the next four years.

All Te'o has done during his career at Notre Dame is record 427 tackles, the third-most in school history and started every contest since the fourth game of his freshman season.

Earlier this season, Te'o persevered through the unimaginable burden of losing both his girlfriend and grandmother in a span of six hours. He honored their memories that week with 12 tackles and a fumble recovery in a 20-3 win at Michigan State.

In late October on national television, Te'o collected 11 tackles, an interception and a sack while helping hold then 8th-ranked Oklahoma to 15 rushing yards in a dominant 30-13 road win. The Irish capped their perfect regular season with a 22-13 win at USC that featured a pair of goal-line stands by Notre Dame with Te'o leading the charge.

Te'o has a team-high 103 tackles this season and his seven interceptions are the most among FBS linebackers. The Irish have the nation's top-ranked scoring defense at 10.3 points per game and held 10 of their 12 opponents to 13 points or fewer. For all the complaints from so-called "experts" about the strength of Notre Dame's schedule, the Irish defeated 10 teams headed to bowl games.

Texas A&M freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, Te'o's fiercest Heisman competition, has thrown for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns while rushing for another 1,181 yards and 19 scores. The Aggies posted a 10-2 record in their first season in the SEC and earned an impressive win at defending national champion Alabama.

No freshman has ever won the Heisman and Manziel is certainly worthy of consideration. However, in both of A&M's home losses against Florida and LSU, Manziel turned in forgettable second halves. The Aggies led Florida 17-7 midway through the second quarter and didn't score another point. A&M owned a 12-0 advantage on LSU just before halftime before Manziel imploded with three costly interceptions.

Manziel is college football's most exciting player. That in no way means he's the sport's best player.

On the Heisman Trophy's official web site, the award describes winners as players who "epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance and hard work." If that doesn't epitomize Te'o, then nothing does.

Don't tell me that a middle linebacker has never won the Heisman or that college football's most-coveted prize belongs to an offensive player because "that's the way it has always been."

Notre Dame began the season unranked and in the eyes of many -- irrelevant. Game after game the Irish kept surviving and silencing critics because of their defense and because of Manti Te'o.