FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Alabama center Barrett Jones was hobbling toward the plane, awkwardly clutching crutches and a bag when a helping hand reached out.
“Here, let me get this for you,” said Manti Te’o, Notre Dame’s star linebacker.
Just a show of good manners from one of college football’s best to another as they started an awards circuit that took them from New York to Houston to Orlando. And now they’ll meet again, even farther south in the BCS championship Monday.
Jones and Te’o are the most acclaimed players on teams with national honors galore, and their upbeat personalities give college football just what it needs right now — an image boost — after being hit with wave upon wave of scandal from State College, Pa., to Miami over the past couple of years.
Both players could be drawing sizable NFL paychecks right now, but they opted to stick around for their senior seasons and wrap up degrees. It’s no coincidence that their teams have wound up here playing for a national title.
Te’o’s answer Thursday to why he stuck around was telling. Representing Notre Dame, his native Hawaii and his teammates is “one of the biggest pleasures and honors that I get.”
“And to just be an example to [Hawaiians] of somebody who made that leap of faith to leave the rock just for a few years and to find comfort in knowing that Hawaii will always be there,” said Te’o, the Heisman Trophy runner-up. “You can do a good amount of service to the state by sacrificing a few years away from home to help live your dream, and by you helping to live your dream, you help other people’s dreams seem that much more real.”
It almost sounds too good to be true.
But teammates, coaches, friends and even acquaintances insist Jones and Te’o are just what they seem: good guys with strong faiths who work hard on and off the field.
They’re not just Boy Scouts, though. OK, Te’o actually is an Eagle Scout.
He’s also a rugged player who overcame the loss of two loved ones this season. Jones looks like a 6-foot-5, 302-pound version of the kid next door with his boyish blond hair, but he also gutted out most of the Southeastern Conference championship with a sprained left foot.
Te’o has even been known to write poetry, reciting a sizable poem during a talk last summer at Honolulu’s newly formed Downtown Athletic Club.
“It was really well done,” said Bobby Curran, a Honolulu radio show host who was emcee for the event. “When do you see vicious linebacker types reading poetry? The kid is so self-assured. He didn’t have any hesitation. There was no awkwardness or embarrassment or any of that.”
Jones grew up learning the violin and memorizing dozens of Bible verses, and was a pretty darn good Scrabble player. He spends his spring breaks on mission trips to places such as Haiti and Nicaragua.
Tide coach Nick Saban has called the lineman “as fine a person as you’re ever going to be around — me or you or anyone else — in terms of his willingness to serve other people.”
Like Te’o, he says and does the right things.
Without profanity. “He’s never cursed,” insists Alabama tailback Eddie Lacy. “Ever.”
Adds right tackle D.J. Fluker: “There is not a dark side” to Jones.
Their accomplishments almost have to be divided into on the field and off the field for brevity’s sake.
Te’o is the first player to have a clean sweep of the following litany of awards: Butkus, Nagurski, Lombardi, Bednarik, Maxwell, Lott and Walter Camp player of the year.
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said Te’o has responded to all that hardware by practicing harder than he had all season.
“For as talented a player he is, he’s a better person,” Diaco said, adding that his star defender is “happy, full of life.”
“On a day where maybe as a coach you might be feeling a little down or maybe slightly distracted with the world’s problems, Manti is easy to see, look at and see his face and immediately be energized,” Diaco said. “So that’s just the kind of guy that he is.”
Te’o is an Academic All-American with a 3.324 GPA in design.
Te’o, a Mormon, showed his character when his girlfriend and grandmother both died within a few hours of each other. He had huge games against Michigan State and, the next week, against Michigan on the day his girlfriend was buried.
“Courageous is one of the best words I can come up with to describe him,” said Mickey Standiford, a member of the Mormon church in South Bend attended by Te’o, who is close with Standiford’s family.
“To face those adversities and be able to still focus and have that determination, I think, to want to succeed for them. He wanted those games to be tributes to them. He didn’t want it to be about him and the fact that he was out there doing it. It was more that he wanted to bring light to them. Courageous, determined, focused and just family is the most important thing to him.”
Jones won the Outland Trophy as a left tackle last season, the Rimington Award as the nation’s top center in 2012 and the Campbell Trophy, the Heisman’s academic equivalent.
He just finished graduate school in accounting.
“I just feel like I’ve been gifted with a mind that enjoys school and enjoys learning,” Jones said. “I wanted to leave with a master’s degree. That was my goal the whole time.”
He made a strong impression on Rich Houston, director of Alabama’s master of accountancy program. Houston taught Jones in advanced auditing in the fall of 2011, a discussion-heavy course that students call “the current events class.”
“The class was at 8 in the morning,” he said. “He was always there, and he was the No. 1 participant in class in terms of both quantity and quality. And that includes having some fairly high-profile people in the accounting profession come into the class.”
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