He answered questions about the just-completed game — about the way his San Diego Chargers defense harassed the opposing quarterback into three crucial turnovers, about the magnitude of the franchise’s first playoff win in four years, about the weather conditions — then paused and averted his eyes. Would the media gathered at Manti Te’o’s locker Sunday evening, beneath Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, leave it at that, and flock toward someone else’s locker, or would they press him about old news?
His shoulders slumped just a little when he got his answer: the latter. And while he was prepared for what came next, and while he handled it gracefully, it was clear he wasn’t in the mood for introspection or insight, not at a time like this.
“I don’t even think about that,” Te’o said softly to the line of questioning that followed. “I’m moving on. You learn, you move on.”
What else was he supposed to say? For the past six months or so, Te’o had receded into the unique sort of seclusion that only San Diego, among major U.S. sports markets, can provide an athlete. Tucked away in that quiet little southwestern corner of the nation, he lived the life of an ordinary NFL rookie and rarely had to worry about being asked uncomfortable questions about his past.
“Fortunately for me,” he said Sunday, “I’m in a place where all they care about is what I do on the field.”
The only times he heard the words “Lennay Kekua” or “catfishing” or “fake girlfriend” was when fans of other teams, or the occasional opponent, tried to get under his skin.
The media covering the Chargers, a pack with a fraction of the size and intensity of the one that covered him at Notre Dame, rarely asked him anymore about what happened a year ago, when his world was rocked by the revelation that his long-distance “girlfriend” — whose supposedly tragic death from leukemia was a central part of the Te’o narrative — was a fraud, a fake.
Between the ensuing public embarrassment, his poor showing in the Fighting Irish’s blowout loss to Alabama in the Bowl Championship Series title game and a slow 40-yard-dash time at the NFL combine, Te’o had fallen from a potential top-15 draft pick to a second-rounder.
In hindsight, though, falling to San Diego with the 38th overall pick was the best thing that could have happened to him.
Geographically speaking, he was as close to his home in Hawaii as is possible in the NFL. He fit well within the Chargers’ defensive scheme and personnel.
And above all, he could take a breather from all the attention. For a guy who did a major sit-down interview with Katie Couric in the middle of the Kekua mess, Te’o managed to enjoy a relatively quiet, anonymous rookie season for an eventual AFC wild-card team — one that faces the top-seeded Denver Broncos in an AFC divisional playoff game Sunday.
“In hindsight, you could say it’s fortuitous he wound up there,” said Mike Mayock, an NFL Network analyst who is close to Te’o from having worked Notre Dame games while the latter was there. “He made sense there for a lot of reasons. He fits their scheme. And from a personal perspective, it doesn’t hurt that he was closer to his family. But the glare of spotlight, all the stuff that had happened to this kid — it didn’t matter where he went. It was going to be a matter of time, whether he wound up in New York City or San Diego, before he put it all behind him.”
So far, Te’o hasn’t been the impact player in San Diego that he was at Notre Dame — where he was runner-up to Johnny Manziel for the 2012 Heisman Trophy — although that hardly makes him alone among NFL rookies.
After missing the first three games of the season with an ankle injury suffered during training camp, he has started every week since at inside linebacker, ranking fifth on the team in tackles during the regular season, but registering no sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles or fumble recoveries.
“For any rookie, when you miss that valuable time in camp, and you miss the reps, it’s going to slow down your development,” Mayock said. “But the good part is, the kid came in, worked his tail off, was highly respectful, kept his mouth shut and wanted to learn. He’s earned [his teammates’] respect. That was his attitude on the way in, and given his situation that was the smartest way to go about it.”
During a three-game stretch in the middle of the Chargers’ season, when fellow inside linebacker Donald Butler was sidelined by injury, defensive coordinator John Pagano entrusted Te’o with the duty of signaling the defensive plays, which Pagano himself relayed to him via headset.
“To be able to stand in front of the unit and give them the call . . . it gave him an opportunity to learn at a hurried rate,” Pagano said last week. “He’s getting better each week. He’s a rookie, and he makes those types of mistake that all rookies do. But the great thing about him is, he corrects himself a lot of times.”
Te’o has played his best football late in the season, just as you would hope a rookie would do. He was credited with 10 tackles, a season-high, in the Chargers’ regular season finale, a 27-24 overtime win over Kansas City that completed their improbable run to the playoffs.
And in Sunday’s win at Cincinnati, he registered eight tackles, second only to Butler’s 12. Afterward, he was undoubtedly the only player in the victorious locker room asked to rehash a painful past.
“To be honest, one thing I learned about the whole situation was [that] you can’t control everything,” Te’o said. “I [learned that] what I can control is what I do on field and who I am as a person, and all that other stuff doesn’t matter.”
This time of year, with each week the Chargers remain alive the stakes grow higher, the atmosphere gets more charged and the media horde swells. If another week of awkward questions is the price Te’o must pay for another victory, one suspects it is a deal he would gladly take.