Even with a real, albeit dead, girlfriend in tow, Manti Te’o’s presence at the 2012 Heisman Trophy Ceremony (presented by Nissan) was fairly awkward. The controversy surrounding Te’o at the time had nothing to do with fabricated stories or late night telephone talks, but rather that he, as a defensive player – a middle linebacker, no less – was being considered for an award that is almost always given to an offensive player.
ESPN had a visibly difficult job trying to emphasize Te’o’s credentials to its audience. (The network even tried to parody the trouble of imagining a middle linebacker winning the Heisman via a skit involving Te’o and analyst Lee Corso. I’ll let you judge how entertaining and/or uncomfortable it was.) ESPN listed Te’o’s number of tackles and interceptions, in juxtaposition to the touchdowns accounted for and yards amassed by the two other finalists, both of whom were quarterbacks. While Te’o’s stats were certainly impressive, they lacked the pizazz that you would hope for from a Heisman winner. Not only that, but the stats just felt like filler, as if ESPN had to find associative numbers to stick to their candidates, even when the statistics weren’t really the reason why Te’o was a Heisman candidate in the first place.
Sure, Te’o was a great football player, but for ESPN, the real reason he was there was that over the course of the season, Te’o and his agonizing backstory had become a sort of national legend. Here was someone who famously turned down the tinsel and high-life of USC to toughen himself against the elements of South Bend. The Mormon kid playing for the country’s most famous Catholic school. Someone who played with genuine, visible passion, who truly played with his heart on his sleeve. College football’s own Ray Lewis, minus the whole involved-in-a-murder issue. Someone who played their best game following the gut-wrenching news that their grandmother and girlfriend had passed away in the same day.
He had a fascinating story. He was larger than life. Te’o was a collegiate icon, a great player elevated to greater heights by the mythology of his personal narrative. Which turns out to not have just been exaggerated, as most sports myths are, but to be simply untrue. Lennay Kekua, Te’o’s girlfriend, did not exist.
But while a low blow to Notre Dame fans, sports journalism and online dating enthusiasts everywhere, the story of Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend should be considered a positive story on the state of modern sports. In the age of over-analysis and exposure of sports stars, the story of Kekua helps to remind us that still, more than anything else, what makes sports so compelling, fascinating and relevant, are the individual narratives behind each athlete, their individual dreams, successes and failures.
The fact that people seem to retroactively think that Te’o shouldn’t have been considered so highly for the Heisman, now that his heart-wrenching personal struggle has turned out to be a hoax, only confirms the power of the sporting narrative, something that I, as a fan bombarded by endless statistics, quick-cut replays and unnecessary personal information regarding sport stars, couldn’t be happier about.
Te’o’s story added a special dimension and color to both Notre Dame’s season and college football as a whole this year. In seeing these special qualities removed, we can truly see the power of Te’o’s mythology and how that affected our perception of his play.
Sure, maybe Te’o made us look stupid and foolish. But hey, that’s what sports are for. For fools like us to put blind faith in athletes, who we most likely will never meet, who we most likely will never match in accomplishment, yet whom we still feel a deep, intimate and hopeful connection to.
Te’o’s embarrassed. Journalists everywhere are embarrassed.
Me? Lennay Kekua simply confirmed my faith in the greatness and power of sporting mythology.
Long live the unreal.