Where: Best Buy Theatre in Times Square, New York
When: 8 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)
Finalists: Manti Te’o, Notre Dame; Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M; Collin Klein, Kansas State
FORT WAYNE — Manti Te’o did dream of winning the Heisman Trophy.
But it was a virtual flight of fancy and at a position his Notre Dame coach wouldn’t even consider putting the 6-foot-2, 255-pound senior at to help secure college football’s most prestigious award.
“I think the only time I was ever mentioned with the Heisman was my video game, my little road to glory I used to play,” said Te’o, who would make himself a running back. “But never in my life would I have thought that it would become a reality where I would even be mentioned with the name Heisman.”
Te’o moved past just being mentioned with the Heisman, the linebacker is one of three finalists for the award that will be presented Saturday night.
Te’o is competing for the award with quarterbacks Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Collin Klein of Kansas State. If he wins, he would be Notre Dame’s eighth Heisman winner and first since receiver Tim Brown in 1987.
The Irish star is also trying to become the first exclusively defensive player to win the award. Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson won the Heisman in 1997, but he also played receiver and returned punts.
“I think first and foremost, for me it would be a great honor for my team,” Te’o said of winning as a defensive player. “Without my team, I wouldn’t be a Heisman candidate. If we weren’t 12-0, I wouldn’t be a Heisman candidate. So without my team and their help, I wouldn’t be going to New York.
“But definitely if I were to win and representing my school and my team and my family and defensive players in general, it would definitely be a great step for all of us. If it doesn’t happen, then whoever does win it is truly deserving of the award.
“Anything, whatever happens, it’s going to be good.”
Te’o was at his best during a trying time in his life and against some of the best teams the No. 1 Irish faced en route to their 12-0 season and spot in the BCS championship game against No. 2 Alabama (12-1) on Jan. 7 in Miami.
On the Saturday after Te’o’s grandmother and girlfriend died in a 24-hour span, he had a season-high 12 tackles, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery in a 20-3 victory over then-No. 10 Michigan State.
The next week, on the day of his girlfriend’s funeral, Te’o had two interceptions and had two quarterback hurries that led to interceptions in a 13-6 win over Michigan as many fans wore leis to show their support for the native of Laie, Hawaii. Leis were worn by fans again on Notre Dame’s senior day, a 38-0 victory over Wake Forest.
Te’o also spearheaded goal-line stands against then-No. 17 Stanford in a 20-13 overtime win and against USC in a 22-13 victory. He also led a defense that held then-No. 8 Oklahoma to only 15 rushing yards in a 30-13 victory.
Te’o’s seven interceptions, the only interceptions of his career, are the most ever by a Notre Dame linebacker and the most by any linebacker since Georgia’s Tony Taylor had that many in 2006. Te’o also had a team-high 103 tackles, making him the second player in Notre Dame history to record 100 or more tackles in three straight seasons.
Te’o has already collected numerous honors, earning the Butkus Award (top linebacker), Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player), Lombardi Award (top lineman or linebacker), Bednarick Award (defensive player of the year), Maxwell Award (player of the year), Walter Camp (college football’s best player) and the ARA sportsmanship award. He was also named a first-team All-American by CBS Sports, a national scholar-athlete by the National Football Foundation and a first-team Capital One Academic All-American.
But there are questions if Te’o’s defensive statistics can overcome the offensive numbers of Manziel (4,600 total yards with 43 combined touchdowns) and Klein (3,470 total yards with 37 combined TDs).
“If a guy like Manti isn’t going to win the Heisman they should just make it an offensive award and just give it to the offensive player every year and cut to the chase,” coach Brian Kelly said. “He is the backbone of a 12-0 football team that has proven itself each and every week.”