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New love story develops for Manti Te’o in San Diego

Manti Te'o

Manti Te'o

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Updated: August 15, 2013 10:02AM

San Diegans have dissected a surplus of Manti Te’o topics the last 3½ months.

They’ve discussed his perceived leadership skills, his relative lack of physicality, his instincts on the field, his smile, his Pacific Island heritage, his mass-media appeal and even the nuances involved in properly pronouncing his surname.

One thing they have not spent much time fretting about is Lennay Kekua.

“I don’t know that it has been talked about that much,” San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “We didn’t care. He’s been great in the locker room, great on the field. So we don’t care about all that. It’s been the story that was a non-story.”

It’s as if Kekua never existed.

So what if the whole country had talked out the girlfriend hoax by the time the Chargers traded up seven spots to take Te’o with the 38th overall pick in the draft? San Diego fans are that desperate to love a winning team again. Players are too focused on a culture change within the franchise to get worked up about the new kid’s social life. The local media is relatively staid. Plus, the renowned rookie handled himself with so much humility.

Whether it was one of those factors or a combination, there’s no denying San Diego has showered Te’o with unconditional love.

Now, the former Notre Dame linebacker is in Chicago for an exhibition game Thursday against the Bears, though a sprained foot suffered during his nine-snap NFL debut a week ago will limit him to trolling the sideline in a protective boot.

“Anytime I don’t get to play, I’m very disappointed, especially playing in Chicago,” Te’o said. “I know a lot of people there, and that’s something I was definitely looking forward to.”

There presumably will be more opportunities to see him.

Te’o has worked with the Chargers’ first team since the first practice. There never was a question that he would start.

“I see what’s going to be a heck of a football player,” center Nick Hardwick said this summer. “He knows where the ball is going. He’s really quick to react on it.”

The fact is, rare has been the Chargers rookie who looked as NFL-ready as Te’o did in those initial workouts. And right into training camp and the preseason, he mostly has continued to impress.

During camp, the local newspaper has run a brief “Te’o Watch” every day. Even if it’s just 20 words, San Diego gets an update on how he looked on the field or drinking water or joking with teammates.

Anything Te’o is newsworthy.

The Chargers’ media-relations staff was determined in its efforts to make sure everyone knew right away that Te’o (Tay-oh) did not rhyme with Seau (Say-ow). And San Diego briefly was abuzz last week when the team revealed Te’o was actually pronounced (Teh-oh), a semantic that has more to do with the differences in how some syllables are enunciated between cultures.

By any name, Te’o appears to have landed in just about the most perfect spot he could have after enduring a national embarrassment in January involving an apparent hoax that centered on his supposedly dying girlfriend named Lennay Kekua.

Still, questions remain, somewhat troubling remnants from the end of his college career, when Notre Dame was throttled by Alabama 42-14 in the BCS title game.

Te’o’s role in the Chargers’ exhibition opener likely was indicative of how he will be used during the regular season. He played every snap except the three third-down plays in which the Chargers used six defensive backs. How Te’o played must evolve. He looked less than aggressive on a couple of snaps, having the block taken to him and being eliminated from plays.

The sample was brief, and the news about his foot diminished what might have been a more widespread critique of his debut.

But San Diego will keep watching.

Kevin Acee, a columnist for U-T San Diego, wrote this commentary for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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