Whatever else Manti Te’o manages to accomplish in his interview with Katie Couric, the humiliated Notre Dame linebacker will at least be proving Karl Marx right: All historical events really do occur twice, first as tragedy, then as farce.
Last year, we watched a mythic college football program — Joe Paterno’s Penn State — unravel in a horrific child-sex-abuse scandal. Now we’re watching another unravel in a screwball comedy that could have been scripted by Mel Brooks.
As singularly ridiculous as the Te’o story may seem — that his incredible season was inspired by the phony death of an imaginary woman — the only real difference between it and the rest of the horsepucky generated in South Bend, Indiana, is that his heartwarming story of triumph over tragedy was exposed more or less in real time, before it had a chance to set as myth.
As lore has it, an obscure Fighting Irish team revolutionized college football in 1913 by using the forward pass to beat Army. In reality, as Murray Sperber details in his book Shake Down the Thunder, Notre Dame was already a well- known football school at that point, and the forward pass didn’t catch on until many years later, not even in South Bend.
Sports myths don’t create themselves. They feed off the bloated copy of rapturous sportswriters, and Notre Dame’s were nourished by the very best of the very worst. Before Pete Thamel, the author of Sports Illustrated’s now-infamous Oct. 1 cover story on Te’o, there was the great, purple-prosed monster of the post-World War I press box, Grantland Rice, who famously compared the Irish’s 1924 backfield — average weight: 158 pounds — to the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” (While we’re deconstructing myths, it’s worth noting that Rice didn’t even dream up this image himself. According to Sperber, he got the idea from a student press assistant.)
The story of Notre Dame football was so good that Hollywood had to tell it. And so it did, in the 1940 biopic Knute Rockne, All American, which, on the eve of the nation’s entry into World War II, turned a good football coach into a Great American. Never mind Rockne’s enduring battle with Notre Dame to lower admission standards for football players, his advice column for college-football gamblers and his fixation on money. The movie is vague about Rockne’s final, fatal plane trip to California. In case you ever wondered, he was on his way to Los Angeles to sign a big deal for the rights to his life story.