NEW YORK | On a night that could have been the pinnacle in a career that has taken a dizzying, almost vertical, ascent, Manti Te’o almost made history twice.
Hours before Texas A&M 20-year-old redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel denied the Notre Dame senior linebacker the distinction of being the first exclusively defensive player ever to win the Heisman Trophy, Saturday night at the Best Buy Theater, the event organizers politely but firmly denied the Laie, Hawaii, native his desire to dress for success in the manner in which he wanted.
Wearing an i’e.
That’s a toga-like mat popular in Samoan culture, or as Te’o himself called it “a skirt thing worn by the men” on special occasions. Occasions that include weddings, funerals, building of new houses, church events, tattooing, and appointing of a new chief in a village.
But apparently not Heisman coronations.
“They asked me to just wear this,” he said of his tux, which he subsequently adorned with a yellow lei and a green garland draped over his shoulders that was so massive it looked like it was wrested from Wrigley Field. “They just didn’t think it would be appropriate for this event.”
It turned out to be Manziel’s night anyway, at least where the 928-person Heisman electorate was concerned. Manziel, only the third freshman to be invited to New York as a finalist since that practice started in 1982, walked away as the first freshman to actually win the award.
Manziel amassed 2,029 points and 474 first-place votes, winning all but one of the six geographical regions – the Midwest. He was named first, second or third on 92 percent of the ballots.
“I came a long way,” Te’o said afterward. “That’s something to look at. Congratulations to Johnny. He deserves it. He had a wonderful season, and I’m just relieved. Now it’s time to get ready for ’Bama.
“I can’t really describe it. It’s that burn that’s saying ‘You’ve got to get better.’ It’s motivation. I always wanted to be the best, and I’ll use it as motivation to be the best I can be. I have a lot of work to do and I’m just excited to get back and get things cracking.”
The top-ranked Irish (12-0) face No. 2 but 10-point favorite Alabama (12-1) Jan. 7 in the BCS National Championship Game at Miami.
Instead of Te’o becoming the eighth Heisman winner for Notre Dame, he settles in as the fourth runner-up in school history and the first since wide receiver/kick returner Rocket Ismail got nosed out for the 1990 award by BYU quarterback Ty Detmer, a month before Te’o came bounding into this life.
The other two ND second-place finishers were Angelo Bertelli (1941), two years before he was named the winner, and Joe Theismann (1970).
Te’o was named on 84 percent of the ballots and garnered 1,706 points, the third-most ever by a runner-up and the most ever by a purely defensive player. His 321 first-place votes were the second-most accumulated by a second-place finisher in the award’s 78-year history.
Kansas State senior quarterback Collin Klein was third with 894 points (60 first-place votes), followed by USC wide receiver Marqise Lee (207) and Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller (144), both sophomores.
Preseason favorite, USC quarterback Matt Barkley, didn’t finish in the top 10, nor did early-season runaway leader, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith. Two defensive players besides Te’o did – South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (sixth) and Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones (10th).
“This is a moment I’ve dreamed about since I was a little kid in the back yard pretending to be Doug Flutie and throwing Hail Marys to my dad,” Manziel said in the moments after he made history.
He later thanked his grandma for some personal history, breaking so many things in her house.
Manziel and his family also continually tipped their caps to Te’o, who befriended the Aggies QB and invited him to go cliff jumping in Oahu sometime in the offseason, a development that might scare Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin more than letting Manziel be quoted.
Up until a couple of weeks ago, Sumlin wouldn’t let Manziel or any of his other freshmen do media interviews.
Manziel’s father, meanwhile, wore a string of Kukui nuts around his neck, while his mother donned a lei, both beloved symbols in Te’o’s broadening world.
And once the sting fades, the lasting memory of Te’o’s improbable Heisman run connects back to home – both his South Bend one and the people back on the North Shore of Oahu.
“That’s what I want to do, affect people,” Te’o said. “I don’t care about the tackles. I don’t care about the interceptions. All I care is the impact I have on lives, especially the people back home.”
Sometimes he does more than merely impact them. Sometimes he changes a life’s trajectory.
There was the little girl at the South Bend Center for the Homeless in June of 2010 that he let climb on him like a jungle gym as they watched the movie “Finding Nemo” together on a rainy day.
“I want to be a TV star,” she told him, showing off a smile that seemed to sparkle, even with two front teeth missing. “What do you think?”
Te’o told her that day to dream big. On Saturday night, he showed just what can happen if you do.
Then there’s Micaela Kauhane, a fourth-grader at Punahou School when Te’o was a senior there. He was her mentor that year in a school-sponsored program, and Te’o promised her that he would give her his playing gloves after Punahou won the state title.
Not only did Te’o remember and keep the promise in the emotional moments following what was then the biggest victory of his life, he stayed in touch with Micaela and her best friend, Rachel, long after the program ended.
“When I go home, I usually take her and Rachel out to McDonald’s,” Te’o said. “They always want to go to McDonald’s. I take them to McDonald’s and get a bite to eat and just make sure they don’t got boyfriends.
“I’m like their big brother, and she’s just a beautiful soul. When you see kids, there’s an innocence about them that’s just amazing. It reminds you how life used to be and how life was great and you didn’t have all of this on your shoulders.”
Micaela didn’t forget the kindness. Now an eighth-grader and burgeoning long-distance runner, she and Rachel surprised Te’o by flying to Los Angeles with family and cheering him on in ND’s 22-13 victory at USC, the win that sealed the national title game berth.
Back home in Laie Saturday, in the Te’o family’s yard to be exact, family and friends stood 30 deep in anticipation of another defiant burst at conventional thinking by Te’o and Notre Dame in a season full of them. Elsewhere around Oahu, T-shirts celebrating Te’o’s stab at history, both of the legal and unlicensed variety, were popping up seemingly at every corner.
“His impact is above and beyond anything we’ve ever seen, at least within the era in which I’ve been covering sports,” said Honolulu TV reporter Steve Uyehara, whose TV station, Hawaii News Now, made the 11-hour flight to cover Te’o.
“On the way here, (fellow reporter) Mike Cherry and I were walking through the airport in Honolulu. And a bunch of flight attendants saw us and they saw our cameras, and they knew exactly what we were doing. They started chanting, ‘Manti, Manti, Manti.’
“He’s a rock star there. Whatever he does, he wants to make an impact. He’s using his stage to do that. Whatever he says, people will listen.”
And when they listen, they tend to to believe.
On Friday and Saturday, Te’o’s path crossed with four of ND’s former Heisman Trophy winners – John Lattner, Paul Hornung, John Huarte and Tim Brown.
Perhaps strangely, the Heisman Trophy never came up in conversation. Instead they thanked Te’o for his team sticking together. They thanked him for the adversity the 2012 Irish overcame. And they thanked him for bringing Notre Dame football back – in their minds – for good.