No player at this year’s NFL Rookie Symposium is a bigger candidate for the locker-room hazing that awaits some incoming draft picks.
So far, Manti Te’o has done his part to prevent that from happening.
Having fun at Te’o’s expense would be easy for San Diego Chargers veterans. He went from being a star Notre Dame linebacker to national laughingstock last January when exposed for having fallen victim to a hoax involving what he thought was a real-life girlfriend who died of leukemia.
Te’o was portrayed in the media as everything from naive and gullible to dishonest for not publicly disavowing his “relationship” with the fictitious Lennay Kekua once Te’o knew she didn’t really exist. The “catfish” scandal also has left Te’o open for pranks and snide comments by his new Chargers teammates, especially considering the often cruel nature of jock culture.
But since reporting in May as a second-round pick, Te’o has received support rather than abuse by his new NFL family. Te’o said Tuesday that there are “no words to describe how happy I am” because of how he was embraced.
“I’ve heard the horror stories about locker rooms. I’ve heard how it was going to be,” Te’o told co-host Jim Miller and me on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
“To be honest with you, I was kind of expecting the worst. I was careful where I went. I was careful with what I said. The first day (of offseason practice), guys are coming up to me and saying, ‘Just have fun. Be you.’ With that encouragement, I slowly started opening up a little more. I became myself — fast.”
Te’o then began garnering respect through his work ethic. Chargers fullback Le’Ron McClain recently said that Te’o has impressed San Diego’s veterans with the amount of time he spends in the weight room and studying film in preparation for the 2013 season.
“He’s a guy who came in and earned it,” Chargers rookie right tackle D.J. Fluker told FOX Sports on Tuesday. “That’s the main thing. He does all the little things right. That’s what you need.”
While attending an NFL Play 60 event with Fluker and other AFC rookies at Cleveland Browns headquarters, Te’o admitted he needed to rediscover himself after the fake-girlfriend hoax.
“What everybody is seeing in San Diego is who I am,” Te’o said. “What everybody is seeing is what everybody at Notre Dame has seen and what my parents have known me to be as.
“I just keep my head down and work hard. If that’s all they know me as, I hope they know me as that. I didn’t say much or talk much, but somebody who loves the game and keeps my family as the most important thing in my life. Someone who will work hard and overcome anything.”
Because of what he has experienced, some of the lessons being taught at the symposium about how to handle off-field challenges as an NFL player were already learned by Te’o during the spring.
“The best thing about my whole situation is that when they talk about overcoming adversity, I’ve been there and done that,” he said. “A lot of things (being stressed) are, ‘Don’t be afraid to reach out. Don’t be afraid to tell somebody if something is wrong.’ I’ve been in those dark places.
"I’ve held onto the things that matter the most to me. That’s my family and the man upstairs. Luckily for me, I had people around me, my best friends, who really pulled me through.
“For me to be in that situation where I can say, ‘I did this. Everybody knows my story. This is how I overcame it and continue to overcome it,’ is definitely a blessing in disguise.”
A Heisman Trophy finalist as a Notre Dame senior, Te’o is now projected as a starting inside linebacker in San Diego’s 3-4 defense. Te’o described defensive coordinator John Pagano’s scheme as “simple but very effective.”
“Coach Pagano does a tremendous job playing to his personnel’s strengths,” Te’o said. “We’re following him.”
Although his road to the NFL was bumpier than most of his peers, Te’o is still a rookie. He laughed when told about recent comments by Chargers teammate Dwight Freeney about wanting to get some hits on Denver quarterback Peyton Manning after the two played together in Indianapolis for 10 seasons.
“If I do get a hit on Peyton, I’m going to have to pinch myself,” a smiling Te’o said.
He then grew serious.
“For me to be here, I’ve done enough pinching,” Te’o continued. “When I first stepped out on an NFL field, I thought, ‘Man, I’m here.’ The more comfortable I get with it, the more it starts to settle in.
“Obviously, I haven’t played my first NFL game yet. When it happens, I’ll probably just take a deep breath and be like, ‘Wow. Now, let’s get to work.’ ”