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Te'o's painful slide ends with perfect fit in San Diego

The SportsXchange

An excruciating path to the NFL ended Friday for Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, who was drafted by the San Diego Chargers with the 38th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

"He's a great kid," said Chargers general manager Tom Telesco. "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. "

Te'o was passed over in the first round Thursday, but he landed in a situation that should suit his ability. Te'o will remain in a 3-4 defense -- in an almost identical role to the one he starred in with the Fighting Irish -- and replace veteran Takeo Spikes in the San Diego front seven.

"He cheered me up when I called," Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of Te'o. "He said, 'Coach, we're going to be fine.'

"He's excited for the opportunity. ... He played in a 3-4 defense, there's familiarity with the 3-4 there in San Diego."

Te'o's best chances to go in the first round figured to be at No. 19 to the Giants, No. 20 to the Chicago Bears or to the Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota had the 23rd and 25th picks and then traded back into the first round (No. 29), but opted not to invest in Te'o.

On Friday, Chargers didn't want to risk letting eight picks go by to see Te'o drafted by another team.

"We were missing that other inside linebacker. Te'o can step in," Telesco 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 compliment Donald Butler really well. We thought in order to get him we had to be aggressive and go up and do it."

The St. Louis Rams drafted Georgia's Alec Ogletree as an outside linebacker, and the first round expired without a middle linebacker being drafted.

Te'o has taken an incomparable path to the NFL, one lined with constant ridicule and non-stop scrutiny, most of which dealt with everything but football.

His "fake" girlfriend.

His decision to delay reporting facts of the hoax to Notre Dame and media.

His (4.8-second) timed speed in shorts and a tank top.

In a matter of days, Te'o will finally be free to return to football in his first on-field appointment as a professional at rookie minicamp. He had to wait until Friday to buy that plane ticket to his future home.

Te'o spent the first day of the NFL Draft in Laie, Hawaii -- with a gaggle of family and close friends and NFL Network cameras -- a single-stoplight coastal hamlet some distance from the scrutiny that has followed him since the national championship game in January.

Te'o was a first-team All-American and a captain for Notre Dame, which was undefeated in the regular season. Te'o had 113 tackles, seven interceptions and 5.5 total tackles for loss, and won the Nagurski Award, Maxwell Trophy and Walter Camp National Player of the Year honors in addition to being the runner-up to Johnny Manziel in Heisman Trophy balloting.

But his numbers were secondary to the off-field endurance test Te'o experienced when news broke a week after the title game loss to Alabama of a hoax involving Te'o and a girlfriend he would later learn didn't exist.

"Honestly, I'd say I'm never going to be normal," Te'o told Vanity Fair magazine this month. "It's still with me now. It's always going to be something that's just there all the time, in the back of my head. Every day, in every situation with people -- conversations, getting Facebook messages -- I'm thinking about all the angles. What does that mean? Wait, stop, who really is this person? What should I be thinking? What should I be doing now?"

A Samoan of Mormon faith, Te'o unlikely journey to Notre Dame could've ended after the 2011 season. He was considered a top-20 draft pick at the end of his junior season, but opted to return for his senior season to keep a promise to his family. Four years ago, Te'o nearly signed with USC, only to change his mind after following his heart to South Bend.

Instead of entering the NFL last April, he committed to making over his body to improve in coverage -- still considered a liability at the NFL level -- and had seven interceptions.

Te'o dropped 16 pounds but pedestrian speed, shorter-than-ideal arms and his performance against Alabama's NFL-like offensive line in January contributed to slowly erasing his stellar career with scouts, who magnified those issues. Especially in the media, Te'o's decorated college resume was crumpled in the fast-forward projections to the NFL and judgment of his role and emotional and moral responsibility in the aftermath of the girlfriend hoax.
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