Former Notre Dame star Manti Te’o ventures into normalcy

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

So engaged was Manti Te’o in pushing himself from semi-panic mode to a relative comfort zone as an NFL rookie that he never did have a chance to cross paths with then-exiled Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson.

Golson, reinstated last month after a season-long suspension, spent much of the fall semester transforming his game inside and out with QB whisperer George Whitfield Jr., in San Diego, the same city where Te’o was hitting a restart button of sorts himself.

That the most compelling aspect of the 2012 Heisman Trophy runner-up’s week had everything to do with foot-ball shows just how far the Chargers linebacker has waded into normalcy.

The hook is a reunion of sorts with the offensive headliner from 2012’s 12-1 Notre Dame football team, Bengals’ rookie tight end Tyler Eifert, today in a Wild Card round playoff game at AFC North champion Cincinnati (1 p.m. EST; WSBT-TV), a game in which neither player is expected to domi-nate.

Blending in may have been the best thing that could have happened to the most decorated player in college football history and eventually one of the most scrutinized during the first months of life after Notre Dame.

Nearly a year after Deadspin’s aggressive spin on Te’o being duped in an online relationship sent the national me-dia on a voracious hunt chasing Deadspin’s still-unproven implication that Te’o was complicit in the hoax, Te’o himself is chasing the things he used to before his life turned temporarily into a Katie Couric/Dr. Phil mon-tage.

“The fans and the community here in San Diego have definitely embraced me,” Te’o told the South Bend Tribune last week.

In the bigger picture, he is losing the parenthetical catfish reference, which for months seemed to be a given in any story about Te’o. A simple Google search now brings up football threads more than hoax references.

A look on eBay, once littered with vendors trying to make a few bucks on off-color T-shirts involving Te’o, have been overrun by legitimate memorabilia dealers, though there are still five sellers looking to push the year-old jokes on their garments, selling anywhere from $8.88 to $14.99.

“I know some of the media asked him about (the hoax fallout) when they played against Denver last month (a 27-20 Chargers road win),” said Eric Williams, who covers the Chargers for ESPN.com. “And he kind of talked about guys bringing it up on the field and sometimes trying to get at him a little bit. But other than that, it’s not a story at all here, hasn’t been since at least September.

“His teammates love him, and the media kind of does, too. It’s kind of weird, because even when he hasn’t played great, he’s still a popular person for reporters to talk to. The fans are very interested in how he’s played and what he’s doing. You listen to sports radio, and you get an idea of how popular he is.”

That one third of the 180,000 people living in the U.S. with Samoan ancestry live in California, with a large con-centration in San Diego County, adds to the popularity of Te’o, a Hawaii native whose father, Brian, is of Samoan descent.

“Someday I want to be a leader for this team,” Te’o said. “It’s just natural. I’m going to do the same thing I did in high school that I carried on to college, and I’m going to carry it on to the NFL.

“I’m going to be the leader I am. And in order for me to do that, I’ve got to know what I’ve got to do. Then I’ve got to know what my guys around me have to do. And then I can become that leader.”

Humble beginnings

There were days early in the season, though, when just being average seemed like a lofty goal for a player the Chargers traded up seven spots for to grab in the second round of the 2013 draft with pick No. 38 overall. A foot sprain wiped out virtually all of Te’o’s preseason work and the first three games of the regular season.

“When he came back from the injury, you could still tell that he wasn’t 100 percent healthy and that he was probably even slower than he was when he was in college,” Williams said.

“As he got a little bit healthier, got familiar with the pro game, he started playing a little better. Early on, he was having trouble getting off blocks. He was just kind of getting swallowed up by those big guards, but you see him finding his way to the ball more and he’s making more plays in pass coverage. Early on, they were taking him off the field on third down when they went nickel or dime. He’s staying out there a little more now.

“I don’t know if he’ll ever be an elite player. I think he can be an average NFL starter, maybe a guy who occa-sionally makes a Pro Bowl. But I don’t think I see him as a (Brian) Urlacher or anything like that, because he doesn’t have the elite athleticism that Patrick Willis has or Luke Kuechly has. But I do think he can be a good pro. And I know the Chargers are happy with the way he’s progressing.”

A career-high 10 of Te’o’s 61 tackles on the season came last weekend in a 27-24 overtime victory over Kansas City, a win that pushed a team that at one point was 5-7 with losses to Houston (2-14), Oakland (4-12), Tennessee (7-9) and Washington (3-13) into the playoffs for the first time since winning the AFC West in 2009. The surprising Chargers finished with four straight wins and were helped by collapses by Miami and Baltimore in gaining the sixth and final playoff spot.

Their last loss came Dec. 1 at home against Cincinnati (17-10). Eifert had one catch for nine yards in that game, Te’o four tackles and a pass deflection.

“It was funny, the first play in that game, I pulled around and we had a nice little collision there,” Eifert told the South Bend Tribune on Friday. “I think maybe Manti had me a couple of times in coverage, but I don’t remember specifically. I still don’t think he tackled me.

“And we joke about it, because in our practices at Notre Dame, we didn’t tackle or hit when we did scrimmages. So it’s kind of funny, we never really hit each other in four years at Notre Dame. So if it happens Sunday, we’ll have something new to joke about.”

A darker time

The subject matter between the two was much more serious last winter in the weeks leading up to the April draft. Eifert and Te’o both signed with the same agency, Tom Condon/Creative Artists Agency, and thus both lived and trained during that time at the IMG Academy compound in Bradenton, Fla.

“I’m eternally indebted to this guy,” Te’o said of Eifert last spring, “because that was possibly the hardest time in my life, going through that. I was lucky that I had one of my best friends with me.

“This guy checked up on me every day. Came over when I said, ‘Nah I don’t want nobody to talk to.’ He knocked the door down and said, ‘Hey man, let’s play some video games or something.’ To have Eif’ there, it was a blessing in disguise for me.”

Eifert, the 2012 Mackey Award winner as the nation’s best collegiate tight end and a first-rounder who went 17 picks before Te’o, has had a quieter, smoother transition to pro ball. His biggest impediment has been a neck in-jury suffered two weeks ago against the Vikings that knocked him out of the regular-season finale with Baltimore.

He expects to play against San Diego.

“There hasn’t been anything that’s surprised me or been hard to adjust to,” said Eifert, who has 39 receptions for 445 yards, including the longest by a Bengal tight end in nine years (61 yards vs. Pittsburgh).

Te’o hopes to give his good friend something to adjust to on Sunday.

Finding inspiration

Today, Te’o has a new set of teammates to lean on in San Diego

“There are many people who help me grow,” he said. “I think, just to name a few, the two big ones are (linebacker) Donald Butler and (safety) Eric Weddle. They’re always helping me, always answering questions, al-ways checking on me, always telling me they believe in me.”

Not that Te’o ever stopped believing himself. One of the first times that was tested came last March, when a per-son claiming to be a social worker in Southwest Michigan approached Te’o about meeting a man who was termi-nally ill and who was purportedly a long-time fan of Te’o and the Irish.

The thought that it could be a hoax, maybe even perpetrated by a media member to ridicule him, crossed Te’o’s mind. But the former ND All-American checked the situation out as best he could and then agreed to speak to Gary “Buddy” McElwain, a Berrien Springs native who spent his final days living with his parents in Three Oaks.

McElwain’s mom, Mary Olson, said Manti called McElwain on his 37th birthday. As re-cently as three years earlier, he had been coaching his son Logan’s soccer team from a wheelchair. But when the two men spoke, McElwain could no longer get out of bed at all or feed himself.

He suffered from a form of muscular dystrophy associated with acid maltase deficiency, in which his body could not absorb protein.

“He was told when he was 14 that he wasn’t supposed to live past 25,” Olson said of her son, a River Valley High School grad. “He and we cherished every day. And he really enjoyed the day he got a chance to talk to Manti.

“Buddy told Manti he admired what he did on the football field and was sorry for what happened to him (with the hoax). Manti wished Buddy a happy birthday, and then told Buddy what an inspiration Buddy was to him. Buddy was so excited. After the draft — and he was hoping Manti would go to the Bears — he talked about getting the football (TV) package, so he could watch the San Diego games.”

Gary “Buddy” McElwain passed on Aug. 7, about a month before the start of the Chargers’ season.

The encounter is just one that gives Te’o perspective as he navigates the growing pains of feeling like a freshman all over again.

“There are a lot of similarities with that transition, whereas you’re trying to learn a whole new scheme,” he said “You’re not really sure where you’re supposed to go. You’ve been used to a certain verbiage, a certain scheme for so long and now you have to kind of reprogram yourself to listen to things, to understand things, to comprehend certain things.

“So it takes a lot of time, and then you have to take all that and apply it during live bullets, so it’s definitely diffi-cult. But I’ve made a lot of strides and I have reaped the benefits from making those adjustments.”

EHansen@SBTinfo.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

San Diego Chargers inside linebacker Manti Te'o, a former Notre Dame All-American, meets up with good friend and fellow Irish All-American Tyler Eifert Sunday, when the two square off in an AFC playoff game in Cincinnati.