If records are truly meant to be broken, as the old sports adage goes, then on Saturday night in Manhattan Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o should become the first purely defensive player ever to win the Heisman Trophy.
Ever the sportsman, he recently credited his remarkable senior season to his teammates, saying, "Without my team, I wouldn't be a Heisman candidate. If we weren't 12-0, I wouldn't be a Heisman candidate."
While that may be true, Te'o -- winner of the prestigious Butkus Award for best linebacker and Nagurski Award for best defensive player -- has earned every ounce of consideration. The Irish are hoping to capture their first national championship since 1988, despite an offense that ranks 76th in both passing yards and total scoring.
Of course, if you want to play the stat game, Kansas State senior quarterback Collin Klein (37 touchdowns) and Texas A&M freshman QB Johnny Manziel (SEC-record 4,600 total yards of offense and 43 TDs) may very well have the upper hand. And, like Te'o -- whose most recent signature Heisman moment was the outing on the road in Norman against Oklahoma, when he racked up 11 tackles, a sack and an interception -- both have had marquee games when it mattered most. In all honesty, this is most likely a two-horse race between Te'o and Manziel, who beat top-ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa while amassing 253 yards through the air, 92 on the ground and two touchdowns. Johnny Football, much like Te'o, has seen his legend grow with seemingly every performance.
But Te'o remains the feel-good story and all-around student-athlete (2011 Second Team Academic All-American) who signifies what this award is all about. Or, to quote the Heisman Trust Mission Statement: "The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work."
Here is a young man who came back to school for his senior season, only to lose both his girlfriend and grandmother on the same day. The day of his girlfriend's funeral, he led the Irish to a victory over arch-rival Michigan with two interceptions.
Between the lines, Te'o has been a one-man wrecking crew all year long. His combined 47 total tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack and four interceptions against Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma and USC are feathers in his cap, but his most outstanding characteristic is his steadfast leadership of the country's top scoring defense and first-place overall team. Manziel and Klein are both stellar candidates who would win in any other year -- but not this season.
College football, as it stands today, is at an unprecedented, critical crossroads. Conference realignment has eliminated traditional rivalries and the spread offense has gone from a trend to tried-and-true. Te'o, during a time of personal turmoil and heartache, has overcome adversities with class, dignity and precision. It shouldn't matter that he plays defense. Truthfully, nobody better personifies the values of the Heisman Trophy, on or off the field.