NOTRE DAME — If Johnny Manziel is looking for a Heisman Trophy endorsement, he can look no further than the player many experts are painting as his main competition.
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o can’t take three steps these days without being asked about the Heisman Trophy race, where he seems to be neck-and-neck with the Texas A&M quarterback.
This time, Te’o was accepting the ARA Sportsmanship Award at a news conference Thursday when asked what he thought of the sensational “Johnny Football” from Texas A&M.
“I’ve seen Johnny Manziel play,” Te’o said. “Dynamic player. Really, really good playmaker. He always tends to make something out of nothing. That’s definitely somebody that’s of Heisman material. I’m a real big fan.”
Though Te’o is set to hit the awards circuit next week — starting with Charlotte, N.C. on Monday, New York on Tuesday, Houston on Wednesday and Orlando, Fla., on Thursday — his heart and mind haven’t left South Bend.
“My mind is not on those awards,” he said during a Thursday press conference. “My mind is on strengthening the relationships I have with my friends, my coaches, my family. Today was my last (day) on campus. It was hard for me to know it’s come to an end. A beautiful end. I haven’t been really thinking about going to New York.”
In fact, the only thing Te’o seems to care about on his week-long trip is if he’ll be able to stay in shape.
“I asked Coach (Brian) Kelly to make sure there’s a gym whatever place we stay so when I come back I’m not a D-lineman,” Te’o joked.
If he gets named a Heisman finalist, Te’o will be back in New York on Friday. And if and it’s a big if for now, as Manziel leads the popular vote — Te’o can become the first purely defensive player to win the award, he said he has no one to thank but his teammates.
“For me, it would be a great honor for my team,” he said. “Without my team, I wouldn’t be a Heisman candidate. If we weren’t 12-0, I wouldn’t be a Heisman candidate.”
With Kelly in Michigan for a recruiting visit, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was on hand to congratulate Te’o on the ARA Sportsmanship Award. Swarbrick compared Te’o’s impact on Notre Dame to some of the most iconic names in professional and collegiate sports.
“It’s hard to imagine a more deserving candidate,” he said. “Pre-eminent sports brands are rare. Even rarer is an athlete that perfectly captures the essence of a sports program. Maybe a Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, a Derek Jeter in New York, a Bill Bradley at Princeton.”