New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 8, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 2:48 a.m. HST, Dec 8, 2013
SAN DIEGO » When Manti Te'o arrived here last spring during one of his visits with NFL teams before the draft, Chargers linebacker Donald Butler could not help chuckling with a few teammates.
"We were like, 'Man, whatever team he goes to, he's going to get so much,' " Butler said of the grief the former Punahou and Notre Dame star might receive. "So it was like karma that he ends up coming here."
It may also have been a blessing. If Te'o was intent on embarking on his professional career while distancing himself from a bizarre hoax involving a fake dead girlfriend that had made him a national punch line, it would be hard to imagine a better place.
Scrutiny by the news media is a shred of what it was for Te'o at Notre Dame, and interest in the Chargers, rebuilding under a new coach and general manager, is tepid, even locally. After a stirring upset at Kansas City on Nov. 24, they returned home last week to become the first team this season to have a game blacked out because not enough tickets were sold, against the Cincinnati Bengals, the AFC North leader.
As for the locker room, where little is sacred, there does not appear to be a Richie Incognito in the bunch. Te'o said not a single player, coach or team official had made so much as a lighthearted wisecrack about what he endured earlier this year when the website Deadspin exposed as a hoax the story of Te'o's girlfriend, who was supposed to have survived a car accident only to die of leukemia.
"He didn't get any hazing," said Bront Bird, Te'o's backup at middle linebacker. "I think a lot of us looked at it like he probably got enough of that before he got here."
When the subject was brought up after practice Wednesday, Te'o did not even look up as he sat at his locker untying his shoes, answering a question he surely sensed was coming with his eyes closed.
"Everybody makes a big deal out of it," Te'o said. "People who still go on about it, move on. I've moved on. For those who haven't moved on, that's their problem, not mine."
The reality is that moving on will probably require Te'o to establish himself as an NFL player worthy of the attention he received at Notre Dame, where he finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting and helped the Irish to the national championship game.
While two other Chargers draft picks -- offensive tackle D.J. Fluker and receiver Keenan Allen -- have shown early promise, it is uncertain where Te'o's career is headed. He sprained his foot in the Chargers' first preseason game and did not return until the fourth game of the season. He has started each game since, but his performances have been uneven.
Two things have held Te'o back, according to TV analyst Mike Mayock, who worked on Notre Dame broadcasts in Te'o's last three seasons: The injury robbed Te'o of preseason repetitions, and the absence of Butler, his partner in the middle of San Diego's 3-4 defense, who missed three starts with an injury, meant more responsibility.
"When you hesitate or you're not sure, you play slow, especially at linebacker," Mayock said. "He doesn't have enough natural speed to afford playing slow."
When Te'o lines up Sunday against New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, he expects it to be a more pleasant experience than it was last month against his brother Peyton. On the Denver Broncos' third snap, Te'o lost track of tight end Julius Thomas, who caught a short pass in the flat and raced up the sideline 74 yards for a touchdown.
"Just bad eyes," Te'o said. "It didn't happen again after that. You live and learn -- it's the nature of football. If you see the past couple games, you see the improvement, more of a comfort level."
Mayock remains bullish on Te'o's prospects, noting that his greatest assets -- his passion and football acuity -- will reveal themselves with a little more time.
"The more reps he gets, the more impact he'll make," Mayock said. "My expectation, big picture, is that he'll play faster and faster and be a very good linebacker in the NFL."
The 22-year-old Te'o said he lives alone and that nobody in his family from Oahu has moved near him. He has not had much involvement with the area's sizable Pacific Islander community, which adored the Chargers' Junior Seau, who grew up just north of the city in Oceanside and whose parents were Samoan.
For now, Te'o said he was trying to focus on football. As for another certain story line?
"I'm going to worry about me, I'm going to worry about what I've got to do," Te'o said. "Whether it stays with me or not, that's not my problem. That's other people's problem. If they want to carry that, go right ahead. I'm going to continue what I'm doing, and that's becoming the best player I can be. Live my life the way I want to live it. If people want to keep talking about it, that's your problem, man."
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