When I was a child — not so very long ago — sports were fun. My mother ran a daycare out of our house and my fellow young hellions and I would often be shoveled out the door and into the summer sun to save my mom's furniture and decorations from almost certain peril. We would play for hours with nothing but a football or basketball, pretending we were Joe Montana or Marcus Allen or Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. To us, the athletes we saw on TV weren't real. They were fantasies. They were gods that resembled men and women but did things no real man or woman could ever hope to do. And we loved them. We idolized them. We wanted to be them.
Eventually my friends and I came in from the hot summer sun. Mom washed the grass stains from our clothes and the dirt off of our faces, and we grew up. The summer of our collective childhood turned to fall as we reached junior high. The outdoor games we used to play were pulled from the heavens of our imaginations and brought down to earth. No more were we allowed to dream of being George Brett or Wayne Gretzky. Organized school sports — for most of us anyway — served as a daily reminder that we were nothing more than the antithesis of Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. We were not gods but mere mortals and the best service we ever did our school as athletes was to insure that the benches on the sidelines didn't blow away in the strong Kansas winds.
This sudden awakening gave way to an understanding that our time was likely better spent in front of the television than on the playing field. So as the years progressed, one by one we traded our seats on the bench for seats on the couch and flipped on SportsCenter, where we hoped that perhaps we could live our dreams vicariously through the gods that flashed in front of our eyes in the highlights.
In between those highlights though, the mortality of the gods we had come to worship shown through in the bright shiny red sheen of the SportsCenter logo. It seemed that for every story of triumph on the field, there came one of tragedy off of it. Athletes of all sports, colors, shapes and sizes showed that too often, they had come to believe that they were in fact the gods that we fans had framed them as being and that the rules of mere mortals need not apply.
Baseball players, Olympic runners, race car drivers and even my personal favorite — college athletes — had all taken turns to show me at my young age that sports were not just simple, innocent fun. Sports were a multi-billion dollar business full of contracts, agents, signing bonuses and endorsement deals. Only a few short years removed from learning the truth about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I was now being subjected to daily reminders that once the jerseys came off at the end of the game, athletes across all sports once again became human, and along with that came humanity's constant, unceasing companion — imperfection.
Over the years I've watched with increasingly jaded eyes as Super Bowls, World Series, national championships, gold medals and Heisman trophies have been overshadowed by scandal. After high school I was made the sports editor of a small community college newspaper and witnessed first hand that even at that seemingly insignificant level, sports were not immune to the tarnish of such things as embezzlement and recruiting violations.
This past year — as I found myself resembling what some may refer to as an adult — I was just beginning to think that I could no longer be shocked when perhaps the darkest cloud to ever form over the sports world in my lifetime positioned itself firmly over State College, PA. There is no need to discuss the details here except to say that it cast a dark shadow over my favorite time of year — the beginning of college football season.
This was not the first time college football has been the subject of corruption. The sport has endured its fair share of abhorrence and ill repute throughout the years as it has grown into a titan of the industry. The money and media attention in major sports affect college athletes perhaps more than those of any other type due to their youth and the sudden shift many higher level athletes experience when transitioning from the relative obscurity of their high school lives to the bright lights of the major college stage.
As we enter the twilight of the 2012 college football season though, two young men seem to be rising above the rest that may start the cleansing process on the image of this sport and — if we're truly lucky — all sports in general.
If you look around at different lists which media members have conceived to try to predict the finalists for this years Heisman trophy, two names almost invariably hover near the top. Collin Klein and Manti Te'o. Klein and Te'o's paths will most likely converge later this year in New York City but the circumstances which led to their respective arrivals there, while very different, are also quite similar.
Te'o came out of high school in Honolulu, Hawaii as a highly touted five-star linebacker who had his choice of top programs. He chose tradition rich Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana which — despite it's glorious football past — had been near doomed to relative mediocrity in recent years. Te'o made his commitment to the Irish official in February of 2009 and by December head coach Charlie Weis had been replaced by former Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Brian Kelly.
Klein — a product of home schooling that instilled him not only with a quality education, but also deep seeded religious morals and maturity beyond his few years — finished his high school football career in Loveland, Colo. a year earlier than Te'o, and to much less fanfare. Whereas Te'o would have been welcomed with open arms on virtually any college gridiron nationwide, Klein had no such luck. He was branded a three-star quarterback prospect and only had two athletic offers. Either he could take a short trip east to the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley to play basketball, or he could head much further east to Manhattan, Kan. to try to help rebuild a program that had really only known success for one decade in its long history — Kansas State. Klein chose K-State only to watch head coach Ron Prince's career collapse by the following November, replaced by the man he replaced — legendary head coach Bill Snyder.
Two men playing on opposite sides of the football field leave high school with opposite prospects and join universities with opposite football traditions only to see the men who recruited them endure the same fate and be replaced by men with the same promise.
As we can see so far this year, the two coaches have each managed to follow through on that promise, due in no small part to the efforts of their respective stars. Klein and Te'o have led their teams to undefeated records through nine games. Both are fast becoming household names throughout the Midwest and the entire country. And both have achieved all of it while being fierce, fiery competitors on the field and model students and citizens off it.
Both young men have had to overcome vastly different challenges to get to where they are today. Klein's challenge was purely athletic — proving his worth first to his coach, then his team and the country by showing outstanding unmatched leadership, humility and discipline. The seriousness with which Klein approaches the game of football is unquestioned, but the innocent, good natured humor and unwavering discipline he displays outside the sport shows that he is capable of easily separating his competitive fire as an athlete from his daily life as a normal human being.
Te'o — whose quality as a football player has never been in question — faced his challenges off the field when unfathomable personal tragedy struck with both his girlfriend and grandmother succumbing to cancer earlier this year. Te'o used his tragedy as a platform not to draw attention to himself, but to help others who may be going through the same pain he has suffered. One example of the fulfillment of this new mission is the letter he sent to 12 year old Bridget Smith who was suffering the same fate that had claimed two of his own loved ones — cancer. Though young Bridget was already in a coma at the time her parents received the letter, knowing that a young man with countless other things on his mind and a no doubt grueling schedule of classes, meetings and practices would take the time to personally show his support for their pain surely lifted the spirits of Brian and Louise Smith as they watched their daughters life slowly fade away.
While the difficulty of their respective challenges cannot and should not be compared, Te'o and Klein have responded with great character — both showing an unshakable faith in a higher power that they each believe is leading them to something much greater than gridiron glory.
No matter your faith, it's apparent that these two young men possess great strength both in their intangible values and their tangible physical nature. The story of their lives is far from its end, but this much is clear: If I had a young son or daughter and a back yard for them to play in, I would be proud if they chose to spend their play time pretending to be Collin Klein or Manti Te'o. Wherever the story goes from here — at least for a few months in the fall of 2012 — they've managed to bring the innocent fun back to sports.