Manti Te’o spent Thursday night with his family in Hawaii, watching the first round of the NFL draft and expecting a phone call that never came.
That call finally came on Friday. San Diego Chargers rookie general manager Tom Telesco moved up seven spots in the second round to draft the Notre Dame linebacker, apparently not worried about a hoax involving a fake girlfriend and a poor performance in the national championship game that have dogged Te’o for four months.
”I did expect to go in the first round. But things happened and all it did was give me more motivation to get better,” Te’o said in a conference call with reporters.
”I don’t know if I have something to prove but it definitely puts a huge fire under my butt to just be better,” Te’o said. ”Again, that’s the best thing that ever could happen to me. I’m already naturally a motivated person who just wants to be the best. All yesterday did was just give me more motivation and more fire to just go out there and play football and do well at it.”
Asked if he dropped into the second round because of the off-field issues and his flop in the blowout loss to Alabama in the national championship game, he said: ”I really don’t know. That’s a question that you’ve got to ask the teams.”
One of those Crimson Tide stars, right tackle D.J. Fluker, was selected by the Chargers with the 11th pick overall Thursday night.
Two officials, each with a different team, said their clubs passed on Te’o in the first round partly because of his off-field issues. The men, speaking on condition of anonymity because team draft strategy is confidential, said the decision was not just because of a disappointing combine performance or the linebacker’s poor performance in the national title game.
Telesco traded with Arizona to move up seven spots and select Te’o with the 38th pick overall.
The Chargers need inside linebackers because Takeo Spikes was released and Demorrio Williams is a free agent.
”It’s a perfect scenario,” Te’o said. ”My parents can come and watch, I can go home, it’s San Diego. We’re all excited. I can’t be any happier. Just looking forward to getting up there and getting this whole thing started.”
The Heisman Trophy runner-up became the butt of national jokes after it was revealed he was duped into an Internet romance he had 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 championship 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 on Jan. 16, 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 said everything he’s gone through has increased his passion for the game because "that’s my sanctuary, that’s my fortress where I’m most comfortable. All it has done is made me look forward to when I’m back on that field again.”
”He’s a great kid,” Telesco said. ”We did a lot of work on Te’o and I’ve seen him for a number of years. He loves football. He’s passionate about it. He loves to practice. He loves to play. He’s a lot like D.J. in that regard. He’ll bring that to us.”
Needing another linebacker, ”Te’o can step in,” the GM said. ”We thought he was the most instinctive and productive linebacker in the draft. He’s going to fit in excellent with our 3-4 defense with how we’re going to play our linebackers. He’s going to complement Donald Butler really well. We thought in order to get him we had to be aggressive and go up and do it.”