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 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.
Jones grew up learning the violin and memorizing dozens of Bible verses and spends his spring breaks on mission trips overseas 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.”
Te’o is an Academic All-American with a 3.324 GPA in design.
For as talented a player he is, he’s a better person,” Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said, adding that his star defender is “happy, full of life.”