SAN DIEGO » Manti Te’o practiced for the first time with the San Diego Chargers today determined to push the infamous girlfriend hoax and his lackluster national championship play into the past.
“I’m here to play football,” the Chargers’ second-round draft pick said on the opening of the rookie minicamp. “I’m not focusing on what is going on on the outside. I’m worried about what we’re doing here in San Diego and I’m looking forward to when the veterans come in on Monday.”
The Chargers traded up in the second round of last month’s NFL draft to select the standout linebacker from Notre Dame. He arrived in San Diego with plenty of credentials and a back story that has transcended sports.
He slipped out of the opening round of the draft in part because of a poor performance in the national championship game against Alabama.
Te’o also became the butt of national jokes after it was revealed he was duped into an Internet romance with a girlfriend he never met and who never actually existed.
Chargers coach Mike McCoy wasn’t interested in talking about Te’o’s past.
“We’re moving on. He’s one of ours now and we’re going to win a lot of football games with him,” he said.
Te’o looked comfortable in the roughly 30 minutes the practice was open to the media. He was inserted into the inside linebacker spot after being in the front-and-center in the stretching part of the workout.
“You feel like you are a freshman again,” last year’s Heisman Trophy finalist said about his new surroundings at Chargers Park. “Football is still football, but there is different terminology and verbiage. That is the biggest change for everybody because we’re used to things being called a certain way.”
Te’o is already in the mix for a starting job. The Chargers, under rookie general manager Tom Telesco, have rid themselves of many veteran players. That leaves a hope at inside linebacker opposite starter Donald Butler, and Te’o will be given every chance to fill it.
“When you take a player like we did, where we did, you want them to come in and play,” McCoy said. “We are going to plug him in there on Monday and he will be in that first huddle with everybody else.”
Te’o acknowledged some first-day butterflies.
“I think I was more excited than I was nervous,” said Te’o, who will wear No. 50 as an homage to his home state of Hawaii — the 50th state in the U.S. “But I was definitely a little nervous just to get out here and start a new chapter of my life.”
Te’o grabbed headlines when it was revealed he was duped into an Internet romance with a girlfriend he never met.
The story began with Te’o’s incredible performances after learning his grandmother and what he believed was his girlfriend had died within hours of one another in September. Te’o said it inspired him to play his best football all season, and it was so compelling that it helped turn Te’o into a Heisman Trophy contender as he was leading the Fighting Irish to an undefeated regular season and into the national title game.
On Dec. 26, Te’o notified Notre Dame officials that he had received a call from his supposedly dead girlfriend’s phone three weeks earlier.
The school investigated and — after Deadspin.com broke the story of the fake girlfriend — athletic director Jack Swarbrick announced at a news conference that Te’o had been duped. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, 22, later said he created the online persona of Lennay Kekua, a nonexistent woman who Te’o said he fell in love with despite never meeting her in person.
To make matters worse, Te’o struggled in Notre Dame’s blowout loss in the national championship game to Alabama and its offense full of future NFL draft picks.
But now he’s a rookie again. It’s a good time to start fresh.
“Just got to keep your head down and know you are a rookie,” he said. “Keep your head in the playbook, work hard and show that you really care about what you are doing and your job.
“Obviously, you got to earn the respect of the veterans and that will come in time. And I’m sure it will come soon.”