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Barry Hirstius

From Shame to Pain to Possible Glory, Saints & Manti Te’o Might Be a Perfect Match

Tell me if you've heard this joke from a few years ago about Saints 5th-year veteran linebacker Manti Te'o, once before: 

"I had a fake girlfriend like Manti Te'o in college, but at least I had the decency to use the picture that came with my wallet."

That joke about Te'o was one of hundreds of insults and memes made by football fans nearly 5 years ago now, after a national story broke in early 2013 in which it was revealed that Te'o had actually been the victim of a "catfishing" hoax.

For those of you unfamiliar with "catfishing", it's when a person pretends to be someone that they're really not on the Internet, and then they lure an innocent victim (in this case, it was Te'o who got fooled) into an on-line relationship, which sometimes can turn romantic.

In Te’o's case , he was led to believe that the young lady he had met via the Internet was a Hawaiian native like himself, named Lennay Kekua. But not long afterwards, he realized that he was the unwitting victim of a scam.

Unfortunately for Te'o, rather than just simply telling everyone what had happened, he decided instead to cover up what had happened to him by saying that the girlfriend had died from cancer -- although she hadn't (because she never existed in the first place).

Making matters worse, after each outstanding performance during that 2012 senior season of his for the Notre Dame University Fighting Irish, Te'o would always refer to her and her alleged death in his interviews with reporters.

As Vanity Fair writer Ned Zeman recounts in his award-winning 2013 story on the Te'o "Catfishing" Scandal, following a September 15th Notre Dame upset victory over Michigan State in which Te'o led the Irish defense with 12 tackles, an NBC network sideline reporter asked Te’o how he managed to play such "inspired football."

Te'o had just lost his Grandmother Annette Santiago to complications stemming from diabetes (which really did happen), and had told everyone that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, had just passed away from leukemia not long after his Grandmother had passed -- which meant that both deaths would have occurred within 6 hours of each other.

“They were with me,” Te’o replied. “I’m just so happy that I had a chance to honor my grandmother and my girlfriend and my family.”

Photo courtesy of The Notre Dame Insider

One week later, Te’o recorded 2 interceptions and 8 tackles during a huge Big Ten conference win over Michigan. Afterward, when asked by another NBC sideline reporter why he spent the day at Notre Dame Stadium rather than at his girlfriend’s funeral in California, Te'o replied by saying that Kekua made him promise he wouldn’t miss a game.

“All she wanted was some white roses,” Te’o adds. “So I sent her roses and sent her two picks [interceptions] along with that.”

As a result of Te’o sharing his heartbreak publicly, he won the sympathy of the entire nation and college football fans everywhere.

But then it was the website Deadspin -- famous for its borderline "attack" articles meant to defame sports celebrities and athletes -- that broke the shocking and jaw-dropping story: there was no such person as Lennay Kekua.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

She never existed. She and the stories that Te'o had told everyone, were completely made up.

Deadspin found out what had really happened when they received an email in early 2013 from someone (an anonymous source) on the Hawaiian island who told them in a nutshell that Manti was [duped] by a man on-line who was pretending to be this girl, by the name of Lennay Kekua.

Once Manti found out he had been tricked, he made up the story that she died in order to ensure that no one asked questions and he never looked foolish.

Following countless hours of research, Deadspin reporters Jack Dickey and Timothy Burke broke the story on January 16th, 2013 -- not long after Notre Dame's humiliating loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship Game -- that Te'o's "girlfriend" and her supposed death, was all a hoax.

As a result, Te'o was publicly humiliated and shamed; which as a result would overshadow his accomplishments from that 2012 senior season in which he led Notre Dame to a BCS Championship Game appearance and finished 2nd in votes for the 2012 Heisman, only the 3rd defensive-only player in college football history to ever finish in the Top 2.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

The Te'o Scandal would largely go onto to obscure all that Te'o had done at Notre Dame, which included 2009 Freshman All-American honors and then leading the Irish in tackles and becoming an All-American and Academic All-American 3 more times from 2010-2012.

But it didn't stop the San Diego Chargers (now in Los Angeles) from taking Te'o with the 38th overall pick in Round 2 of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Te'o's time in San Diego unfortunately was marred by injuries that before joining the Saints this past off-season in 2017 Free Agency, had severely hampered the 26-year old's 4-year long NFL career.

Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Chargers

Te'o injured his right foot in the Chargers' 2013 Pre-Season opener, which caused him to miss the remainder of that Pre-Season as well as the 2013 regular season opener against the Texans. Te'o ended his 2013 rookie season with 61 tackles and 4 passes defended in 13 games started.

In 2014, Te'o suffered a fractured foot. He returned in the middle of that season in a game against the Raiders, and went on to finish that season with 61 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception, and 3 pass deflections.

In 2015, Te'o missed four games in mid-season due to an ankle injury; and finished with 63 tackles, one interception, and one forced fumble.

Then of course, there was last year --- where on September 28, 2016, he was placed on injured reserve with a torn Achilles tendon and missed a majority of the 2016 NFL season after appearing in 2 games.

So essentially in 4 years time, Te'o went from shame to pain.

Photo courtesy of The San Diego Union-Tribune

But this is where his story takes a wonderful and maybe an even glorious turn of events, after he became a member of the Saints organization after signing a 2-year Free-Agent contract with New Orleans on March 21, 2017.

Te'o has been reunited with his former linebackers coach with the Chargers, long-time NFL defensive "guru" Mike Nolan; whom the Saints hired back in January to replace the fired Joe Vitt, who had been the long-time Saints assistant head coach and linebackers coach since 2006.

Nolan's impact since his arrival upon the Saints defense can't be overstated enough, since the Saints linebacker corps is easily THE MOST IMPROVED position of the entire Saints team roster up to this point, and perhaps no one player under Nolan's tutelage thus far has shown as much improvement as Te'o has.

Te'o has been "turned loose" --- and resembles the 4-time All-American player that he was at Notre Dame, more than the injury-riddled player that was with the Chargers.

Against his former team last Sunday Night, Te'o recorded 8 tackles (seven solo), a sack and a fumble recovery, which had his fellow Saints defensive players making jokes about Te'o of their own, except that these were "nice" jokes, and not the insults that he got nearly 5 years ago.

Photo courtesy of Layne C. Murdoch, Jr.

Said Saints All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan to reporters in the locker room after the game:

"It looked like Manti might have played for the San Diego Chargers before or something," Jordan said laughing out loud. "It's crazy the way he knew the depth of knowledge in the backfield." 

Jokes aside, Te'o took the ribbing from his teammates all in stride; and told reporters that he let the game come naturally to him.

"It's a different playbook," he said. "It's about reading keys, use your instincts and go out there and having fun." / The Times-Picayune beat writer Josh Katzenstein noted that Te'o was appointed as one of four team captains to take the pre-game coin toss, and said that Te'o was pleased with how he held his feelings in check. 

Photo courtesy of Layne C. Murdoch, Jr.

"There's that little extra meaning to the game, but I was really happy with myself and how I handled it," Te'o said. "I think a young guy would come in here anxious and try to do too much."

"I kind of let the game come to me, and when I had an opportunity to make a play for my team, I didn't step out of my comfort zone. I didn't try to do too much." 

And Katzenstein adds: with everything under control, all Te'o had to do was go out on the field and enjoy himself. 

"It's always fun when you're winning," said Te'o. "I didn't play a perfect game, but I was very happy with how I played, how the team played and overall happy to get a win."

After that stellar performance against his former Chargers teammates, Pro Football Focus says that Te’o was the highest graded player on the Saints defense with an 84.6 grade. He was third in run stop percentage (percentage of stops per snap played only in run defense) this past week among linebackers with 15 or more run snaps at 17.6 percent.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picyaune

That performance is exactly why Nick Underhill of The New Orleans Advocate believes that Te'o will most likely be the starting "Mike" / middle linebacker for the team once the 2017 season gets underway in just a little over 2 weeks from now, when the Saints open their campaign against the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis on ESPN's Monday Night Football, on September 11th.

Te'o is expected to start at the "Mike" spot in the Saints base 4-3 defensive alignment, and then be subbed out in passing situations by A.J. Klein -- who will start as the "Sam" / strong side linebacker in base but will replace Te'o in the "nickel" defense (usually on 3rd downs) at the "Mike" position, since he's better at pass coverage than Te'o is.

Nevertheless, whether he plays only on 1st and 2nd downs, or plays on all 3 downs; Te'o appears to have taken full advantage of the opportunity that he's been given by defensive coordinator Dennis Allen (with the guidance of Mike Nolan's steady hand and influence) to revitalize and rejuvenate his once-disappointing young NFL career.

Based on what we saw against the Chargers last Sunday Night, it's safe to say that Te'o has gotten off to a promising start.

It will be interesting to see if Te'o can have another comparable performance like the one that he had last week, in tonight's 3rd Pre-Season game against the visiting Houston Texans at the Superdome. Kickoff is scheduled 7 p.m. Central time.

If he is able to do so, it will serve to only add to the notion that for Te'o, coming to New Orleans and making the most of an opportunity to "turn around" what had been a disappointing professional career after so much success in college, could end up as the best decision that he's ever made.

Photo courtesy of Layne C. Murdoch, Jr.

And certainly a much better choice than the one nearly 5 years ago; that almost defined his playing career and even his entire lifetime as a whole, however unfortunate and completely unfair as that would have been.

If Te'o can have more similar performances going forward like the one that he had the other night, it could be said that he will have gone from stardom to shame and then from pain to possible glory, in a time spanning 5 years.

Should that turn out to be the case, then Manti Te'o and the New Orleans Saints might just end up being a "perfect match".......

Big Easy Magazine contributing writer and Saints News Network columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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