SAN DIEGO — After dealing with the commotion over his fake online girlfriend and his flop in the national championship game, Manti Te’o believes he’s ready for the NFL.
That includes being mentally tough enough for the verbal abuse he’ll surely hear in places like Philadelphia, where the San Diego Chargers play their first road game next season, and Oakland’s infamous “Black Hole.”
“After the couple months I’ve been through, I think I’m pretty prepared,” Te’o said Saturday in his introductory news conference. “As far as going into another stadium, you can’t worry about that stuff. You’re with your family, you’re with your brothers out there. That’s all that matters. That’s all you can really pay attention to. Yeah, it’s a football game, and you play with the guys that you’ve prepared with, and you focus on what’s important, and that’s making sure that when the Chargers walk off, we’re victorious.”
The Chargers’ rookie brain trust, general manager Tom Telesco and coach Mike McCoy, said they weren’t bothered by the scrutiny Te’o has been under the last four months. The Chargers traded up in the second round to pick the star Notre Dame linebacker.
Te’o visited with Telesco and McCoy in San Diego before the draft and gave his version of what happened with the girlfriend hoax and his poor play in Notre Dame’s blowout loss to Alabama in the national championship game.
“I just concentrate on me being me,” said Te’o, who seemed relaxed in facing the media. “What I learned from that is you can control certain things and you can’t control other things. So, learn to control the things you can and leave the things you can’t control up to those people. I was just happy to get out there and share my side of the story, to just tell them that hey, what happened was what happened and what I’m here to do is play football. Hopefully guys saw that.”
Te’o said Friday that he had expected to go in the first round on Thursday night. He was with his family in Hawaii when the first round came and went without him being drafted. The Chargers took him with the 38th pick overall after trading spots in the second round with Arizona and giving the Cardinals their fourth-round pick.
Te’o said he’s been welcomed by his new teammates, with quarterback Philip Rivers being the first to text him with congratulations. He’s even getting on well with Alabama right tackle D.J. Fluker, the Chargers’ first-round pick.
Te’o became the butt of national jokes after it was revealed he was duped into an Internet romance with a girlfriend he never met.
The too-good-to-be-true 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.
Te’o struggled in Notre Dame’s loss to in the national championship game to Alabama and its offense full of future NFL draft picks.
One of those players, Fluker, was drafted by the Chargers with the 11th overall pick Thursday night. Fluker posed for a group photo with Te’o and California wide receiver Keenan Allen, the Chargers’ third-round pick. Fluker then stood to the side as Allen and then Te’o answered questions.
“He’s one of the funniest dudes in the world,” Te’o said of Fluker. “Having D.J. on our team and the energy he brings to the game, if you watch him on the field he’s one of the meanest dudes but off the field he’s one of the coolest guys to get to know. Now we’re here and Keenan’s here. We all knew each other before we came here. We’re very lucky to be here.”
Te’o said he’s dealt with the circus the last few months by “just finding time for myself. I found time for myself with my family. I found a lot of peace and a lot of joy just hanging out with my friends, hanging out with my family. Me going back to Hawaii was the best thing that happened to me, just to be around my family.”
What should people know about him?
“I’m just a regular 22-year-old kid,” Te’o said. “I just love to hang out with friends, love to play football. Just normal. Just like everybody else.”
Te’o said his biggest influences were the late Junior Seau, who starred with San Diego for 13 seasons, and Ray Lewis, who retired after leading Baltimore to the Super Bowl win against San Francisco.
“It starts off with Junior,” Te’o said. “Me being a Polynesian-Samoan kid, you look up to Junior. He’s a Samoan man who was a trailblazer for kids like me. Everybody knows what Ray Lewis does, not only as a player but what he does as a teammate, rallying his guys, being that leader. When he says something, people listen. I’ve always watched that, the enthusiasm, energy and tenacity.”