Across the last 3½ months, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly watched Manti Te'o, one of his all-time favorite players, get run over (by Alabama in the BCS title game), ripped apart (following an online girlfriend hoax) and eventually rejected (in Thursday's first round of the NFL draft).
"We've become so close, it's like your own kid going through it," Kelly told Yahoo! Sports on Friday.
So on Friday morning, after the first-round draft snub brought the latest humiliation in what felt like an endless run of embarrassment for a player who otherwise is known as hardworking, dutiful, caring and talented, Kelly decided to call Manti.
"I called to cheer him up, but he wound up cheering me up," Kelly said. "He was like, 'Coach, I'll be fine, I'll get through this.' It turns out the call was more for me than him."
Friday night, with the sixth pick of the second round, the San Diego Chargers finally called Manti Te'o's name. With that, the light at the end of a long, long tunnel finally arrived.
Te'o told San Diego reporters that when he saw the California number come up he thought – ironically – it was some friends pranking him. When the voice at the end of the line was the Chargers, he put everything behind him and looked forward.
"It's great motivation for me to go out there and just get better, and that's what I intend to do,” he told Chargers.com.
For the first time since the Crimson Tide ran over his Fighting Irish in the title game, Te'o's reality is back in his own hands. Finally, what matters will be what he can do, tangibly, on the football field. It's not about explaining how he got duped into believing he had a girlfriend who was actually a guy, or why he embellished their relationship. It's not about defending his size (a little small) or his speed (a little slow).
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Manti Te'o either can play in the NFL or he can't. This could be an inspired pick. It could prove to be a bust.
At least, it's finally a fair contest, one that will be decided not by the perceptions or judgments of others, but on the practice fields and, eventually, games of the NFL. At this point, after this stretch, that's all the guy wants – a chance.
San Diego believed in Te'o enough to trade with Arizona to move up seven spots in the second round.
"He just can't wait to have the opportunity to put the pads on," Kelly said. "That's all he's been saying. He finally has the opportunity to prove he is the kind of player on the field and off the field that people thought he was."
The NFL draft process is never kind or fair or reasonable. Everyone is put through the ringer. It doesn't matter how pristine the image (Tim Tebow) or how gifted the athlete (Cam Newton). The knives come out, the criticism is relentless, and the entire ordeal can shake even the most self-confident.
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For Te'o, it was even rougher. That final game against 'Bama was a disaster. Then came the revelation that the dead girlfriend he spoke often about during his senior season was a fraud. He became a national punch line, the subject of intense speculation and "SNL" skits. He was an overdramatic and overexposed soap opera in a business that doesn't take kindly to such things.
He wouldn't have been beaten up as much if he'd just gotten arrested or failed some drug tests.
So after that, yes, slipping out the first round hurt. But at that point, what was one more supposed indignity?
"It was disappointing," Kelly said. "I don't think there is any other way to put it. Manti is such a strong kid, though. He just said, 'I just want to get to Sunday, by Sunday, I'll know where I get to go.'"
It didn't take even that long. In San Diego he'll find a defense in need of a leader and the big shoes of a franchise that knows great linebacker play from the Junior Seau days.
He'll also, no doubt, get some renewed media interest in the girlfriend hoax and, of course, lots of jokes about it in the locker room. Kelly said he spent most of Friday fielding calls from NFL coaches and personnel men, the question focusing not so much on the girlfriend hoax (teams aren't so concerned about it), but whether Te'o was capable of handling the fallout of the girlfriend hoax.
"Obviously this is going to come up in the new locker room, he's going to take some ribbing," Kelly said. "They wanted to know, is he going to be able to deal with it? He's going to take some ribbing the first couple of days. But I told them he is a guy who is going to get through that and earn the respect of everyone because of the way he works and the way he leads and the way he carries himself."
It's almost difficult to remember what Te'o's senior season was about. After all the tumult, it's a strain to recall the way everyone saw him when he was dancing up the tunnel at the Los Angeles Coliseum after dispatching USC to give Notre Dame a most unexpected perfect regular season.
He was an excellent player who brought together a vicious defense. He had seven interceptions. He was a sure tackler. He was a kid with great character, with a big smile. The All-American player, the All-American kid.
That's the athlete Brian Kelly knows. That's the person.
Since then, it's been almost all downhill. Rolled by the Tide, humiliated by a hoax, picked apart by scouts and left to sit and stew on Day 1 of the draft.
So, yeah, his old coach called to tell him to keep his chin up. And, yeah, just as expected, he found a player itching to get to practice and seize the opportunity to prove himself, the real Manti, once again.
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