COSTA MESA, Calif. — As practice nears its end, set up shop in the sun-soaked end zone of this gorgeous, if unfamiliar, Orange County practice field and watch the Chargers and Saints walk off the field together.
Players mingle for half an hour, chopping it up with college teammates, professional contemporaries and family members close enough to see their sons pursue an NFL dream.
Watch the Chargers closely. This could have been Manti Te'o's team.
Chargers old and young, established stars and little-known backups, make a point to stop and talk with Te'o. So do trainers, equipment managers, security guys and public-relations specialists.
Te'o, one of the nicest, most approachable linebackers in the NFL, talks to everyone, lingering in deep conversation for 10 minutes or more with a few old teammates.
"I know everybody, and they know me," Te'o said. "It was like I had 200 teammates out there — teammates I have with the Saints, teammates I have with the Chargers."
If a step he took in the first half of a game at Indianapolis last year had been a simple plant and release, like thousands of others he has taken, Te'o might still be wearing Chargers purple.
"When I suffered my Achilles injury, it just so happened to be during a huge season," Te'o said. "That was my contract year; I came in in great shape. I was playing at a high level. I was a captain of my team, everything was working in my favor and then that happened. It kind of sends you down a spiral. You’re on this fall, and you’re trying to grab onto anything as you’re descending."
Te'o has been through far more than the average NFL player.
The darling of college football during a brilliant senior season at Notre Dame in 2012, Te'o's world was ripped apart when he found out that Lennay Kekua, the long-distance girlfriend from Stanford who he believed had been in a car accident and died of leukemia, was actually an online hoax, a "catfishing" scheme perpetrated by a man.
Three months later, the Chargers drafted Te'o in the second round, and he tried to focus on his NFL future, but the story was too big. Opponents used it as fodder for trash talk; reporters kept asking about the fallout.
"That was something I had to get over," Te'o said. "And it lingered for years."
On the field, Te'o's development kept getting interrupted. A fractured foot in his first preseason game limited him to 13 games as a rookie; a stress fracture in the other foot held him to 10 the next year.
The Chargers hired Mike Nolan as linebackers coach in 2015, and Te'o started to take off. Under Nolan, Te'o turned in his best season in the NFL, racking up 83 tackles in 12 games, although a high ankle sprain cost him a quarter of a season.
The clouds finally seemed to be clearing. When the 2016 season opened, the Chargers voted Te'o a team captain, and he played like one.
"When I looked at last year's three games, I thought he made a good jump from the year before when I coached him," said Nolan, now linebackers coach with the Saints. "His stance and his patience, attacking the run, not over-running things, his path to the ball. All the technical things that a player wants to do to make a lot of plays."
Then his left Achilles tendon popped.
"It was just tough seeing him not be able to be out there and be healthy," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. "Every year, he was really playing well, and then he couldn't stay healthy."
For the first hour after the injury, sitting in the Chargers' locker room in Indianapolis, Te'o was devastated. He bounced back emotionally to get ready for surgery, then felt reality hit again in the hospital after the operation.
He felt himself drifting.
"You just ask — everybody — whenever anything like that happens, that big question: ‘Why? Why did this happen?' " Te'o said. "You kind of start thinking, ‘What did you do wrong?’ "
Family and faith helped stop the slide. The night Te'o went down, his younger sister Eden hopped on a plane from Hawaii to California and flew to her brother's side. While Te'o was trapped on his couch, Eden literally carried him, helping him up the stairs, making meals, grabbing the cart he needed to move.
"I’m the oldest (of seven), so it was hard to see my younger sister taking care of me. It’s supposed to be vice versa," Te'o said. "She was the living example for me of what love means, of who I want to be like — just like her."
His sister's example reminded Te'o, a devout Mormon, of his faith.
"Whenever adversity strikes, I think, whatever religion you may belong to, you try to cling to something that gives you some sort of hope," Te'o said. "God is that thing I held onto. ... It helped me to rescue myself and to get back on my feet and to make my way."
A new beginning
Te'o signed with the Saints in March, ending his Chargers career by agreeing to a two-year deal that could be worth $7 million but includes just $600,000 in guarantees.
Essentially, he has to prove himself all over again, but he has brought the personality the Chargers know to New Orleans in force, publicly encouraging young linebackers like Alex Anzalone and Stephone Anthony while blending in with the other veterans in the group.
"He was mature when I had him in San Diego, but he is more mature now," Nolan said. "Through a lot of soul-searching, I see a guy that's every bit like he was before. He's always been dedicated; he's always worked hard — all those intangible things."
Physically, Te'o has made plays in practice that have convinced Nolan the veteran will be the same kind of player he saw on tape for three games last year. None of his old teammates would be surprised.
"Manti was really developing into a key player in this league when he got hurt," Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram said. "But I still feel like he's going to step back to the gold."
If he realizes his potential, Te'o will be producing for a team other than the one that first gave him a chance, a fact made all too clear by the Saints practicing against his old teammates this week.
Seeing all those familiar faces might make some players wonder what might have been.
"Those thoughts never really got into my head," Te'o said. "I really don’t like to dwell on the what-ifs. It’s going to drive you crazy."
Te'o hasn't forgotten his past.
He has embraced it.
"I think a lot of people look at adversity, and they shy away from it," Te'o said. "I’ve learned through all my times of adversity that it makes me and molds me into the man that I need to be, and I’m grateful for it. Because without it, I wouldn’t be as appreciative of the things that I do have now."
A new team.
And a new chance.