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Berry Tramel

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Manti Te’o: What if he had won the Heisman

by Berry Tramel Published: January 17, 2013

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o didn’t win the Heisman Trophy. Some of us were wishing he had. Seemed like it would be good for a defensive guy to win it. Seemed like it would be good to quell the runaway momentum of all things SEC. Seemed like a great feel-good story.

Oh my goodness. How thankful we now should be that Johnny Football won the Heisman.

Can you imagine the mess today if Te’o had won the Heisman on the back of his tragic story of both his grandmother and his girlfriend dying on the same day, Sept. 12? Three days later, Te’o had a monster game against Michigan State and propelled himself into the national consciousness, including Heisman consideration.

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o (5) celebrates with teammates after they defeated Miami 41-3 in an NCAA college football game in Chicago, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o (5) celebrates with teammates after they defeated Miami 41-3 in an NCAA college football game in Chicago, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Now, of course, we know that while Te’o's grandmother indeed died on Sept. 12, Te’o's girlfriend didn’t die that day, primarily because she wasn’t alive. She was a hoax. Notre Dame says Te’o was the victim of an elaborate ruse, and Te’o admitted in a statement that he was involved in an online relationship with someone he thought was Lennay Kekua.

At best, Te’o comes out as the ultimate doofus. At best. A Heisman contender, at Notre Dame no less, who develops an online relationship with someone and doesn’t have the sharpness to figure out the person is a fraud. Sure, it happens. It happens to bored housewives and troubled 12-year-olds and 27-year-old guys living in their mother’s basement. It’s not supposed to happen to Notre Dame linebackers.

Let’s say Te’o was the victim of an elaborate hoax. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but let’s say it was. He’s still culpable, because Te’o rode the tragic nature of the story for all it was worth. Talked about the girl like he’d walked the beach with her 10,000 times. Media agencies large and small, and Heisman voters, and the public at large —  – all of whom are by design lemmings in the first place — fell for the story hard.

Te’o's inspirational rise from the depths of tragedy was as much a part of his Heisman candidacy as his hard-nosed linebacking and Notre Dame’s Renaissance. Same as the Johnny Football moniker was as much of Johnny Manziel’s candidacy as was running circles around Alabama. I said throughout the year that if Johnny Manziel’s name was George Syzmanski, he would have had no chance at the Heisman. But Johnny Football without that name was a more marketable candidate than Manti Te’o without the girlfriend story.

And what if Te’o had won the Heisman instead of placing second?

In June 2010, the NCAA dropped major sanctions on Southern Cal and told the school to disassociate itself from Reggie Bush, the Trojans’ 2005 Heisman winner. USC complied and even boxed up its copy of the Heisman and shipped it back to the Downtown Athletic Club of New York. A month later, Bush announced that he would “forfeit” his title as a Heisman winner and would return the trophy to the Heisman Trust, though he didn’t do so until 2012.

Of course, I thought the whole thing was silly. Reggie Bush won the 2005 Heisman and to pretend he didn’t flies in the face of history. This voiding of events, this retroactive-penalty concept that’s in collegiate sports, makes no sense. You can’t rewrite history and you can’t wipe out memories. Diligence in the first place is the way to police sport.

Anyway, my question is, if Bush’s Heisman is invalid, how would have a Te’o Heisman been any more so? If Te’o owned the Heisman today, would anyone demand that he give it back?

All who wanted a pound of Reggie Bush’s flesh should feel compelled to demand the same from Te’o. Bush won his Heisman through dubious means — the breaking of NCAA rules. But Te’o would have won his Heisman through dubious means — the fleecing of the electorate with a story ungrounded in truth.

Congratulations, Johnny Football. You won the Heisman Trophy. And now all of America is glad you did.

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by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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