Manti Te'o and the Fighting Irish: A Season to Remember
I was 10 years old. The kick was good, and I cried.
For the first time in my life a sporting event made me cry. These were not tears of joy. Boston College kicked that field goal as time expired and Notre Dame, the best team in the country, was upset.
I cried only knowing that the Irish had just beaten Florida State in an epic match. They were No. 2 going into that, while FSU was No. 1. It was the original ESPN Game of the Century. The first time Gameday went on the road, and the Irish won. They physically overpowered a FSU team many said they wouldn’t be able to hang with. But they did it. They were the best team in the country.
I cried because Notre Dame had lost to No. 17 BC, and it was only the beginning of the fourth quarter. It was the classic trap game and ND was trapped. But then the impossible happened and ND scored 22 points in 11 minutes to tie the game. They could do it just so long as they stopped one last drive.
They had the momentum, they were going to win. Then David Gordon kicked a field goal for BC as time expired and fate twisted the knife in my young heart. “But, but if they only had two more minutes they would score again! I know they would. So does BC!” They didn’t have two more minutes. And I cried because of that.
I cried not knowing that in another twist of fate, this team I cared so much for would be shut out of a national championship despite having eerily similar circumstances to 1989 Miami (who beat No. 1 Notre Dame, then lost to unranked FSU, but still won the national title).
I cried because for the first time in my life I knew what it really meant to care for something, and that something had hurt me deeply. It was the first of many lessons about just how much life can hurt.
This was the beginning of the end.
For nearly two decades the Irish would only flirt with greatness and never come close to actually obtaining it. The administration would de-emphasize football, Bob Davie wouldn’t be able to capture Holtz’s glory, and he’d underuse Urban Meyer’s talents and let him leave for Bowling Green.
I did not know that Tyrone Willingham would come in as an apparent savior, but a false one at that, living off of insanely opportunistic defense and special teams while having a non-existent offense. Nor did I know that Willingham would give up on recruiting and leave massive holes when he was fired and that Charlies Weis again came in as an apparent savior.
No one knew that Weis would recruit well, but wouldn’t or couldn’t care about developing a defense or a running game, or any players outside of his quarterbacks. And that he’d try to out-scheme everyone when he should have just coached his talented players well.
I cried not knowing that 7-5 or 8-4 would be considered a good record for the next twenty years. That Notre Dame would fall from the elite of the elite. The team of Knute Rockne’s .881 winning percentage. The Frank Leahy team that sought out the best in the country, the team that played and beat unbeatable Army in the 40s, the team that went four years without a loss. The team that ended Oklahoma’s amazing win streak. The team that beat No. 1 Alabama in the 1973 Sugar Bowl. The team with a 5-2-2 record in No. 1 vs. No. 2 matches. I cried not knowing that team would disappear.
No one could possibly have known what would happen to Notre Dame after that field goal.
I didn’t cry this past Saturday night. I didn’t but I could have.
Because this team is straight out of Irish lore. This team was nothing. It was a year away from being competitive. Its offense too young, a new quarterback who needed more time to learn the ropes, no big name receivers and good, but not great, running backs.
A defense expected to be good along the front seven, but a weak secondary further weakened by season ending injuries to three of its starters before the season even began. A team playing a schedule that would make a SEC team think twice. The best hope was for a 7-5 maybe, maybe an 8-4 season if they got lucky a few times.
If anybody told that to guys like Manti Te’o and Theo Riddick those words went unheeded. Because this team knew itself. Knew what it was capable of even if no one else did, and knew it would fight until it died to get where it wanted to be. Brian Kelly believed in them, and they believed in him, no matter what the rest of the world said.
Cierre Wood didn’t listen to the world. Instead he decided to average 6.7 yards per carry.
Tyler Eifert didn’t listen. Even with opposing secondaries focusing on him it didn’t matter. He decided to catch anything thrown near him no matter how absurd.
Everett Golson grew in every game becoming a true dual threat late in the season. The type of quarterback who keeps defensive coordinators up at night.
Louis Nix and Kapron Lewis Moore didn’t listen. Instead they anchored a defense that has put up numbers comparable to last year’s Alabama defense, usually referred to as the Death Star—they’ve held opponents to more than 15 points fewer than their average points scored this season.
Keivarae Russell and Matthias Farley didn’t listen. Despite Jamoris Sluaghter, Lo Wood and Austin Collinsworth going down early, the secondary refused to give up the big play. They had over 100 consecutive drives of 60 yards or more that didn’t end in a touchdown. Only two touchdown drives the entire year were over 60 yards. That is incredible.
Then there’s Riddick. Theo Riddick, running back, slot receiver and running back again. Riddick who was a clear second behind Cierre Wood. Riddick who fans would get angry at for not being as explosive as Wood. Riddick who danced a bit too much and didn’t run North-South when he could have. That Riddick who at the end of the season willed his offense onward when it stalled. The Riddick who would not, could not go down at first contact against a very physical USC defense. Riddick with the great hands out of the slot, a threat anywhere on the field. Riddick who ran like the world was on fire behind him and salvation was only an endzone away.
But most of all there is Te’o.
Te’o, who unexpectedly ended up at Notre Dame; that he himself didn’t know that he wanted to go there until a prayer changed his mind. Te’o could have made millions in the NFL this season but decided to stay on an underachieving and unproven team because it was the right thing to do. Te’o who has been there for fans when they needed him most.
He has suffered more this past season than most college kids suffer the four years they go through school. A man who lost his girlfriend and his grandmother within 24 hours of each other and instead of staying down, instead of understandably seeking to withdraw into grief, has lived as the heart and soul of an undefeated team, has become a rallying point of joy and all that is good about college football.
He has played otherworldly: seven interceptions and over 100 tackles. Stats going back to 1999 show that no linebacker has done that over the time period.
Charles Woodson, the last (primarily) defensive player to win a Heisman had 42 tackles and seven interceptions in the regular season during his Heisman campaign. He had that few because offenses played away from him.
They did the same for Te’o, who was supposed to be weak in pass defense, but has proven extraordinary (not another linebacker has more than four interceptions on the year). Te’o quarterbacked a defense as good as any in the country, the stingiest by far in giving up touchdowns and he did it where most of us would have just given up and shuffled through life blindly, destroyed by our grief.
I didn’t cry when Notre Dame defeated USC. I didn’t because there is still a national championship game to be played. I didn’t because I’m almost 30 and have experienced enough pain and loss and joy and love to make crying a little more rare than when I was 10. I didn’t cry because I couldn’t quite believe Notre Dame had gone undefeated.
Te’o and coach Brian Kelly had led a resurgence unlike any ever seen in my lifetime. A team full of miracle wins, great escapes and sometimes even outright dominance. A team that you just can’t help but like and a coach who has changed himself to reflect that, who no longer flies into purple rages on the sideline, but teaches his students to constantly be better.
Always be better.
And, oh yeah, that includes academics. A university that actually graduates its players. Best in the FBS at that. One that makes sure every kid who comes in leaves as an educated man, no matter where he came from.
I haven’t cried this season, but if on January 7th Te’o lifts that crystal ball I will. And they will be tears of joy taking me back to when I was 10 years old, but this time Notre Dame will have won, and for a moment all will be right in the world.
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