COSTA MESA (AP) — Manti Te’o has been surrounded by friends while his New Orleans Saints held two joint practices this week with the Chargers, his team for the previous four seasons.
“I’ve got over 200 teammates out there,” the linebacker said Friday after the second workout at the Chargers’ training camp complex.
Te’o is off to a promising start with the Saints, sitting atop their depth chart at middle linebacker heading into the second preseason game against Los Angeles at StubHub Center on Sunday.
He has worked with the first-team and second-team defenses during training camp, and ample playing time will be available if he lives up to the ability he flashed during his injury-plagued tenure in San Diego.
Yet Te’o is still mindful of the friends and future he left behind with the Chargers when the Saints made a better offer in free agency.
“You never really think that you’re going to go anywhere else, and you never really think you’re going to stay there,” Te’o said.
“You kind of just take every day like it’s the last one. I’m extremely appreciative and grateful for the opportunity that the Chargers gave me by selecting me and drafting me. I grew a lot being on that team. I learned a lot, and now I’m more than grateful for Coach (Sean) Payton and the Saints for giving me that opportunity.”
Te’o was a second-round pick by the Chargers in 2013 after his decorated college career at Notre Dame, and he didn’t shrink from obvious parallels with Hall of Famer Junior Seau, the only other linebacker of Polynesian descent to play for the Bolts.
But Te’o struggled with injuries throughout his time in San Diego, playing in 38 games over four seasons. He appeared in just three games last season before tearing his Achilles tendon in September and sitting out for the year with an injury that has only returned to full strength fairly recently.
Te’o was often excellent when healthy with the Chargers, making 34 starts and 221 tackles.
But lower-body injuries — broken feet in 2013 and 2014, followed by an ankle injury in 2015 and that Achilles tear in 2016 — prevented the Chargers from seeing his full potential, and they allowed him to leave as a free agent.
“It was just tough seeing him not being able to be healthy and be out there,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said of Te’o.
“Because every year, he was really playing well, and then couldn’t stay healthy. He looks healthy now. He seems to have made the transition, and you always pull for guys like that.”
Te’o spent the past four years building fast friendships with many Chargers — including Rivers, who has been off limits to Te’o’s physical play throughout his career.
“It’s going to be the same, but now if I have the opportunity, I can hit him,” Te’o said with a smile. “I know that he’s looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to it, and it’s just going to be a very exciting game, for me especially.”
Te’o made sure to reconnect with all of his Chargers friends this week — particularly Denzel Perryman, the Los Angeles linebacker enduring his own injury struggles.
Perryman was likely to be the Chargers’ starting middle linebacker this season before he injured his left ankle on the first series of the preseason opener, requiring surgery that is likely to sideline him for at least two months.
Perryman watched Friday’s practice on crutches. Te’o knows that feeling.
“That’s my brother,” Te’o said. “There’s a lot of relationships that I have that go beyond football. That’s one of them right there. Right when I heard that he went down, I didn’t know what happened, but I just called him to make sure he was OK, that his family was all right. That’s somebody that ... I’m going to raise my kids with his kids. We’re going to go on vacations together. That’s my brother.”
More AP NFL: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL