- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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I believe Manti Te'o.
I believe he told the truth at Notre Dame. I believe he told the truth to ESPN correspondent Jeremy Schaap.
But you'll have to forgive me. I'm a sucker for Frank Capra movies.
As the story of Te'o's mythical girlfriend unfolded last week, as the former Fighting Irish linebacker became grist for the national snark mill, I began to realize that I had seen this film before.
The fresh-faced innocent becomes a hero. He gets his comeuppance. The cynics pounce. And in the final act, the innocent triumphs. He gets the girl. The movie ends, and we all go to the malt shop.
Capra made movies before and after World War II that remain among America's best-loved films. Capra immigrated to America from Sicily as a child. He loved his adopted country and he spoke from its gut in one film after another. His main characters stood up for values that we once told ourselves are quintessentially American: humility, modesty, doing the right thing even when it bucked the system.
That's what George Bailey did in "It's a Wonderful Life," what Long John Willoughby did in "Meet John Doe," what Longfellow Deeds did in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town." Capra made all of those films.
Te'o is Longfellow Deeds in a gold helmet. "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936) is the story of an innocent from a Vermont village who inherits a great fortune, comes to sophisticated New York to claim it and is taken apart by the big-city wolves.
"All my life, I've wanted somebody to talk to," says Deeds, played by Gary Cooper. "Back in Mandrake Falls, I used to always talk to a girl."
"A girl?" he is asked.
"Only an imaginary one," Deeds says. "I used to hike a lot through the woods and I'd always take this girl with me so I could talk to her. I'd show her my pet trees and things. It sounds kind of silly but we had a lot of fun doing it. She was beautiful."
Te'o is an innocent from a Hawaiian village who, as every schoolgirl now knows, had an imaginary sweetheart, too. In the current Capra vehicle playing out on the American stage, we have seen the fresh face become a hero. We have seen him get his comeuppance. We are in the middle of the cynics pouncing.
Te'o has been fodder for late-night monologues and cable talkfests. Journalists whom I respect took shots that mostly revealed their lack of effort (would it be so hard to learn how to pronounce the name of someone you crucify?). Comedians whom I enjoy rat-a-tatted their way through material that their writers could have pounded out in their sleep -- and did, judging by the quality of it.
Maybe it's because I write about college kids for a living, and maybe it's because two of my three children are college kids, but the jokes have fallen on deaf ears. Where the Twitter memes see an easy target, I see a naïf who just discovered in public that the world can be mean.
"I guess I get the idea," Deeds says to a group of New York writers in a bar who are amusing themselves at his expense. "I guess I know why I was invited here. To make fun of me."
Te'o's trust and belief in his teammates galvanized a Notre Dame team that no one expected to contend for the national championship. Head coach Brian Kelly repeatedly said Te'o is the best leader he has been around in 22 years of coaching.
By all accounts, Te'o personified humility. He acted without guile all season. When the story broke last week, Te'o continued to act without guile. He sat down with Schaap, who is no one's pushover, and answered questions as best he could. Te'o admitted his embarrassment. He didn't try to spin the story to save face. He owned up to his shortcomings.
But we should look up from our Te'o jokes to remember that he is the victim. He didn't create this girl out of whole cloth to advance his career. He trusts people. The dark side of that trust is that Te'o became the ideal mark for catfishing.
Babe Bennett, played by Jean Arthur, is the streetwise reporter who befriends Deeds in order to take advantage of him in her Manhattan newpaper. She says to her friend:
"Mabel, that guy's either the dumbest, stupidest, the most imbecilic idiot in the world or he's the grandest thing alive. I can't make him out."
And then she says:
"Here's a guy that's wholesome and fresh. To us, he looks like a freak. … He's got goodness, Mabel. Do you know what that is? No, of course you don't. We've forgotten. We're too busy being smart alecks. Too busy in a crazy competition for nothing."
Deeds gave the money away, got the girl and returned to Vermont a hero. I don't know whether Te'o will become a hero again. We know he won't get the girl. But it seems pretty clear to me that he's got goodness. Capra made his last movie more than a half-century ago. He has been dead for more than two decades. But I am betting he would have recognized Te'o.
Manti Te'o isn't the first to play this role. Frank Capra made a living making movies about humble, modest men who hit hard times.