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April 27, 2013

Te'o finds haven in San Diego

For the first time in five months, the light at the end of the tunnel that is Manti Te’o’s life is signaling hope and a promising, productive future, not a collision course with the bizarre.

Te’o’s head-on confrontations with adversity should now be predominately, if not exclusively, confined to the football field. His journey through hell on earth has reached the depot in San Diego, where the Chargers made him the 38th overall pick and sixth in the second round Friday night of the NFL draft.

“Being a Charger means a lot to me right now,” said Te’o from his home in Laie, Hawaii. “The coaches and the front office, it’s a great organization, and I want to reward them for picking me. I’m going to do whatever it takes to helps us win.”

Te’o can expect another solid round of questioning about the Ronaiah Tuiasosopo/Lennay Kekua hoax upon his first face-to-face gathering with the local media. No matter what happens in his professional career or life, the questions will never be far behind.

But now, finally, Te’o can once again do his talking with his pads, and that should be a relief for him, his family and the sporting world that watched this story unfold from shocking detail to unexpected revelations.

No one, particularly not a person of Te’o’s character, should endure the outright cruelty he has experienced for the path he chose when his grandmother died and his “girl friend” followed shortly thereafter.

Te’o didn’t create it; he was a victim. But there is a lesson to be learned for embellishing and reveling in the sympathy and positive publicity he received in the aftermath. He overplayed it to the point where teammates and media alike found themselves rolling their eyes when Te’o came up with a new way of expressing his pain and sorrow for his losses.

But Te’o didn’t deserve the heartless treatment that an unforgiving public and media showed him over the last five months, not to mention the gutless throngs who cast aspersions behind the protective veil of anonymity.

Those reactions, which pass for acceptable human behavior in today’s society, are just a small part of it. The inaccurate portrayal of Te’o the football player was a result of the fallout from the scam, which the media perpetuated at every turn.

Te’o’s performance against Alabama - which has been repeatedly panned by the media - is used as an example as to why Te’o didn’t deserve to be a first-round draft choice. Perhaps he didn’t deserve it, which is why he fell to the second round. The NFL revealed its opinion of Te’o by his exclusion from the first round.

But the incessant reference to the Alabama game as an example of why he was not a legitimate first-round draft choice is an extreme case of selective reporting.

He played poorly against the Crimson Tide. There is no doubt about that. But so, too, did the other 10 defenders on the field. If Te’o had been crushed in a tennis match, the poor performance would have been rightfully pinned on his shoulders. Putting the blame for allowing 42 points and 265 yards rushing on Te’o’s shoulders is incredibly shortsighted in a game of 11-on-11.

And yet, one could accept that perception if there wasn’t such a blatant double standard by which other prospects’ performances were measured, and all you had to do was go back one game on Alabama’s slate to see it.

In the SEC championship against Georgia, the Crimson Tide rushed for 350 yards. That’s not a misprint. 350 yards. Among the players on the Georgia defense that day were linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, the Nos. 17 and 30 overall picks Thursday night. Why weren’t their roles in that dreadful performance against Alabama cited time and again as red flags to their futures in the NFL? Jones, in particular, was wildly ineffective in the SEC championship.

You can say that Te’o will have issues on third down in the NFL. Anyone who understands the game and has seen Te’o run should know that is a strong possibility. Yet he’s coming off one of the most freakish seasons by a middle linebacker in college football history. His off-the-chart seven interceptions may not be duplicated again by an inside linebacker.

But in the months leading up to the draft, his seven interceptions were often overshadowed by a 40-yard dash time in shorts in an empty stadium in February. Which of the two statistics is a more accurate indication of his ability?

At least one San Diego Charger is much more interested in what Te’o brings to the team on the field and in the locker room.

“I could care less about that other stuff,” said Chargers safety Eric Weddle. “I’m sure everyone will think that way here. If he wants to talk about it, we’ll listen. But it’s not going to be a problem here.”

Weddle said he was “1,000 percent” in agreement with the organization’s decision to draft Te’o.

To say that Te’o will never be a great NFL player is a legitimate conclusion, but it has nothing to do with the hoax or his performance against Alabama, which was a train wreck waiting to happen for a lot of the Notre Dame players that night. His physical limitations may ultimately prevent him from living up to his five-star projection coming out of high school and his unprecedented senior season at Notre Dame that made him the most decorated defensive player in college football history.

He didn’t commit rape or rob a bank or steal a credit card or deal drugs or beat up a classmate. He didn’t set out to harm another human being and he didn’t intend for his “relationship” to become the fiasco that it did. He took his share of missteps, and his embellishment of reality contributed to his fame. He almost undoubtedly wouldn’t have been in the running for the Heisman had the “two deaths” not occurred.

Being nave is not a crime. Lacking foresight in the face of what many on the outside thought should have been common sense is not worthy of the torment or inaccurate portrayal of his football ability.

San Diego is a great landing strip for Te’o. He’s as close to his home in Hawaii as possible while playing in the NFL. He respects and appreciates the significance of fellow Samoan Junior Seau, who starred in San Diego, where there is a significant Polynesian population.

Te’o’s slate with the media and public will never be wiped completely clean. But the future looks brighter than is has in five months, and for that, Te’o finally can breath a sigh of relief.

The real story now is about Manti Te’o, second-round draft choice of the San Diego Chargers. Reality starts now.


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