Whatever else Manti Te’o managed to accomplish in his interview with Katie Couric Thursday, 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.
As singularly ridiculous as the Te’o story might 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 horse-pucky generated in South Bend, Ind., is that his heartwarming story of triumph over tragedy was exposed before it had a chance to set as myth.
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 cover story on Te’o, there was the great, purple-prosed Grantland Rice, who famously compared the Irish’s 1924 backfield – average weight: 158 pounds – to the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
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.
Let’s not overlook Rockne’s co-star, George Gipp, played by Ronald Reagan. 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 never happened.
Forget Notre Dame’s record of national championships and Heisman trophies. Far more remarkable is the sheer quantity of manufactured history – 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.
Alas, Rudy failed to heed his own advice. He borrowed against his fancy 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 Securities and Exchange Commission, the real purpose of the company was to serve as the vehicle for a penny-stock scam that bilked investors out of $11 million.
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 Bloomberg View sports columnist 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.”