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.
Let’s not overlook Rockne’s co-star, George Gipp — played by Ronald Reagan, who as a politician would later present a lot like the charming, insouciant halfback portrayed in the film. The real Gipper was a hard-drinking pool-hall hustler who bet on his own team’s games. His endlessly quoted deathbed speech to Rockne — and Gipp may well have died from pneumonia brought on by a three-day drunk — never happened. Rockne concocted “Win one for the Gipper” himself. He knew from experience that these fictitious last prayers, whether from a dying child or a former Fighting Irish star, almost always helped motivate his team.
Forget Notre Dame’s record of national championships and Heisman Trophies. Far more remarkable is the sheer quantity of manufactured history that this football program has produced — and we haven’t even gotten to Rudy, the saccharine 1993 movie about the diminutive walk-on whose dream was “to play football for the Irish.”
In the film’s most iconic scene, the team’s seniors march one by one into the coach’s office to lay their jerseys on his desk, a collective act of protest intended to force the coach to allow Rudy to suit up for his final game of eligibility. Yes, this, too, was a complete fabrication.
Here’s something that did happen: The real-life Rudy, Daniel Ruettiger, parlayed his fame from the movie into a successful career as a motivational speaker and corporate trainer, offering clients such pearls of wisdom as, “Follow your passion, instead of chasing the dollar.”
Alas, Rudy failed to heed his own advice. He borrowed heavily against his fancy Las Vegas home, and then tried to dig himself out of debt by incorporating a company to market his new sports drink, “Rudy.” Only, according to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the real purpose of the company, Rudy Nutrition, was to serve as the vehicle for a penny-stock scam that bilked investors out of $11 million.
“Investors were lured into the scheme by Mr. Ruettiger’s well-known feel-good story, but found themselves in a situation that did not have a happy ending,” the SEC said in 2011, charging Rudy with securities fraud. (Ruettiger ultimately settled with the SEC, agreeing to pay a substantial fine.)
Which brings us back to Manti Te’o’s well-known feel-good — and now thoroughly discredited — story. In a way, it’s the myth of the Gipper updated for the social-media age. In place of a dying halfback, we now have a dead fake Internet girlfriend.
However this plays out, it’s safe to say that Te’o has already secured his place in Notre Dame’s grand tradition of hooey.
(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning; The Challenge, and Death Comes to Happy Valley. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Photo credit: AP/Michael Conroy, File