Manti Te'o used to make himself a running back playing video games growing up, barreling over defenses with the flick of a joystick or the push of a button. That was supposed to be the only way a linebacker would ever have a chance at winning the Heisman Trophy, in a virtual world in which he could play offense.
Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy Saturday night, so perhaps that path for defensive players still holds true. But Teo made it farther in the process than all but two purely-defensive players in the Heismans 78-year history. Only Pittsburghs Hugh Green and Iowas Alex Karras -- yes, that Alex Karras -- finished as high as Teos second-place finish in 2012.
Never in my life would I have thought that it would become a reality where I would even be mentioned with the name Heisman, Teo said earlier in the year.
Undoubtedly, Teo is disappointed to not win college footballs most prestigious honor. He told reporters before the ceremony he didnt come to New York to finish second, just like he repeated all year that he didnt get this far in Notre Dames season to not win the BCS Championship. But there was no pass to be intercepted or goal-line tackle to be made Saturday. The winner of the Heisman Trophy was decided days ago, and all Teo could do is sit and watch the result unfold.
If a guy like Manti Te'o's not going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award, coach Brian Kelly said after Notre Dame beat USC, pitching his linebacker as the Irish celebrated a trip to South Florida. Just give it to the offensive player every year and let's just cut to the chase. He is the backbone of a 12-0 football team that has proven itself each and every week. If the Heisman Trophy is what it is, I don't know how Manti Te'o is left out of that conversation.
Te'o was hardly left out of the conversation, though. He finished second with 1,706 points -- only about 300 fewer than Manziel, and the most points by a purely-defensive player ever. The fact he was even in it, with many voters shunning the idea of casting a vote for a defensive player, is an extraordinary feat on its own.
Inside the Irish: Even without Heisman, Te'o's season one for the ages
But Te'o's impact wasnt just about the stats -- 103 tackles, 7 interceptions -- it was about being the emotional leader of the nations No. 1 scoring defense. It was about his play against Michigan State and Michigan while dealing with personal tragedy. It was his impact in the community, his integrity, his status as a legitimate role model.
He lives his life the right way, Kelly said. He goes to class. He takes great care of himself off the field. He's a college student. He can laugh and have fun and be silly. He can be tough.
He's just all that you would want in a young man as a college student and a representative of Notre Dame.
That impact couldnt be measured. Manziels 4,600 yards of total offense and 43 touchdowns while playing in the nations best conference, though, was an easy talking point. Theres little debating those numbers -- and make no mistake, Manziel is a deserving player to become the first redshirt freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
Related: Te'o makes history with sixth award
But just because Manziel deserved the Heisman didnt mean Te'o wasnt deserving, either.
I tell people, they think it's all about stats, Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix explained Friday. Me, I actually went on the Heisman website and read the mission statement. And it basically has Manti's picture next to it.
People want to talk about stats, all these other players up for the Heisman, they're great players. But Manti, on and off the field, he's that guy. He has integrity, he's athletic, he's one of the best guys you'll ever meet. I don't take that away from any other player, but I think Manti is the Heisman. I think he should win it.
For Te'o, though, the grand prize is still out there, well within his reach. He wanted to win the Heisman Trophy, but hed rather win the BCS Championship.
I rather be holding a crystal ball than a bronze statue, Teo said earlier in the year. That's just me.
Few expected Notre Dame to participate in the National Championship when fall camp opened in August -- not even their athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, who thought Notre Dames year was going to be 2013. Even fewer (try anyone) thought of Teo as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
But Te'o still had a legacy to secure entering his senior season, one that didnt involve a trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony. Notre Dame hadnt been elite on a national stage in nearly two decades, and hadnt won a title since 1988. This years team brought the Irish back with defense, and with Teo as its backbone.
He is the perfect guy to lead the resurrection of this program, Swarbrick said in November.
Thats Te'o's legacy, and one that still has one more chapter to be written next month. The Heisman Trophy wasnt crucial to it. A National Championship, though, would vault Teos legacy to rarified air among Notre Dames elite.
When you're a champion at other schools, you're a champion, Te'o explained, but when you're a champion at Notre Dame, you become a legend.