SAN DIEGO — Manti Te’o was relaxed and ready to take on the media in a nearly 20-minute session after the San Diego Chargers’ first minicamp workout on Tuesday.
It was the longest the team had let the reporters question him.
“When we’re out on the football field, nothing else matters,” Te’o said. “All my teammates care about is that number 50 is working his butt off. That hasn’t been difficult at all.”
Looking at Te’o standing at a podium answering questions from reporters, you’d never even suspect that the rookie linebacker fell victim of a hoax that dominated national headlines.
According to Deadspin, the 22-year-old linebacker from Notre Dame was involved in a relationship with a woman he believed to be Lennay Kekua, who then allegedly died from leukemia just prior to Notre Dame’s BCS Championship Game loss to Alabama.
Te’o finally came clean after the Deadspin story broke, admitting he’d carried on a “romance” by phone with someone he was convinced was a woman. She was the love of his life, he said many times.
She almost ruined him, too.
Turns out Kekua was actually an acquaintance named Ronald Tuiasosopo, a member of the famous athletic family. Te’o said he believed he was talking to an actual woman and that he’d fallen in love.
Te’o fell on the NFL Draft board, going from a seemingly sure first-round pick to a second rounder taken by San Diego at No. 38. And there was a bizarre scene recently in Hollywood, as Maxim magazine named Kekua as one of the “100 hottest” women in the world.
At the party to unveil the issue, guess who was there?
Yep, Te’o and some of his buddies.
When asked if he was trying to show that he had put the past behind him and was ready to move on, Te’o said it wasn’t.
“It was more of me being a 22-year-old being invited to an event and going to check it out, “ Manti said. “My friends and I went up there and had a good time.”
“A good time” is something that has probably been in short supply since the hoax was brought into the public consciousness and the bad performances in the bowl game and combine.
Despite all of that, Te’o is a player new head coach Mike McCoy is counting on to help get the Chargers back into the playoffs.
“He’s done a great job of learning the system and that’s very important,” said McCoy, who replaces Norv Turner. “He also is getting the opportunity to go up against Antonio Gates, which is tough to do and we’ll see how much he learns between now and the opener.”
McCoy said that despite his slow numbers at the combine, they weren’t worried about taking a shot on Te’o, who was a finalist for the 2012 Heisman Trophy.
“Some of the greatest players in the history of the games haven’t had great times in the 40 (yard dash), so what we did was look at the film (of his career). The film doesn’t lie.”
The Chargers are hoping that Manti doesn’t lie either, as they’re counting on him being a three-down linebacker for the team in his first season. The last thing they need is distractions — Te’o assures that it won’t.
“We have a saying in the defensive room: ‘Keep the main thing the main thing.’ I’m here to play football and be the best Charger I can, and I’m not going to let anything get in the way of that,” Te’o said.