METAIRIE, La. -- Manti Te'o said he has found peace this season as he returns from a torn Achilles with a new team, a fresh start, "a new me." And the New Orleans Saints linebacker credits his faith in God and the love of his little sister, Eden, among others for helping him reach this point.
But it wasn't easy. Not by a long shot.
Te'o, 26, admitted that the injury sent him "down a spiral" emotionally and spiritually at first -- especially because of the timing in Week 3 of a "huge season."
Te'o felt great last summer, heading into his fourth season with the Chargers. He was a team captain, was playing his best football and was heading into a contract year.
He also said he had finally moved past the fake-girlfriend scandal that enveloped him when he first entered the NFL in 2013 after starring at Notre Dame.
"You know, that was something that I had to get over. And it lingered for years," said Te'o, who became infamous as the victim of a "catfishing" hoax in which he believed he had a long-distance girlfriend who died of leukemia before it was revealed that she didn't exist.
"And that was why Year 4 in the NFL was such a big year, because it was the first year that I felt that I was free," Te'o said. "And I felt great. And I was just playing the way I wanted to play. And then another adverse situation came along.
"And I think a lot of people look at adversity and they shy away from it or they look at it as a thing that's too hard. But 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.
"I was appreciative -- I thought I was. Everybody thinks they are until it's gone. Then you really learn to appreciate it."
Te'o has now found himself in a place he's never been in New Orleans: under the radar.
The 6-foot-1, 241-pounder has worked primarily as the starting middle linebacker so far in training camp, though he comes off the field in passing situations and likely will cede the signal-calling role to fellow newcomer A.J. Klein. Te'o is not even a lock to make the roster after signing an incentive-laden two-year deal that is worth up to $7 million but included only a $600,000 signing bonus. But so far, he appears to be on a good track with his health and performance level.
"I'm really close [to where I was last summer]," said Te'o, who said he doesn't mind flying under the radar for a change.
"If you ask anybody -- I think if you asked that guy to my left, Drew [Brees] -- high-profile guys love to fly under the radar," said Te'o, who was doing his interview next to Brees. "And we like to be just normal guys. We like to go to the grocery store and just walk around. I don't think Drew can do that. He's noticed everywhere. But it's something that, for me, I enjoy."
Te'o was quick to point out, however, that he also enjoys that "everybody still knows who I am."
"[A high profile] has brought me doing things on and off the field that can create that picture for everybody, that when they see me, they see a good guy that gave his all to the people on the field and off the field," Te'o said. "And that's what I'm striving to do."
Te'o has had a tough time making his mark in the NFL so far because of a series of nagging injuries (both feet, an ankle, then the Achilles) that forced him to miss a total of 26 games in four seasons.
When healthy, Te'o has been solid as a middle linebacker/quarterback of the defense. Although he doesn't have elite speed and athleticism, he started 34 of the 38 games he played for the Chargers and recorded 221 tackles, two interceptions, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
He thought last season was going to be the breakthrough, which is why he said he battled some emotional highs and lows for a while after the injury.
"It was off and on," Te'o said. "You know, when I first got hurt, it was the first hour I was struggling. And after that, I kind of got everything together. ... Then you get it fixed and you're laying in a hospital bed and you get hit again. You start going like, 'Man, now I gotta go [through] this and this.' And then you kind of recover. But you slowly, you're drifting a little bit. ...
"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. But God is that thing that I held on to. And he's the only one that could've saved me from that fall. And I really kind of just leaned on that. I leaned on my faith. And it helped me to rescue myself and to get back on my feet and to make my way."
Te'o said his sister also helped to rescue him by immediately flying from Hawaii to San Diego and spending the next two months with him. She helped him with everything -- from climbing stairs to carrying his things to bringing him food and drinks -- which he said was humbling since he is the oldest of seven siblings and is supposed to be the one taking care of them.
"My sister was that example to me about what love is. Love is the strongest thing in this world, and that's what the world needs more of is love. And my sister was the epitome of that," Te'o said. "She was the living example for me of what love means, of who I want to be like -- just like her."
Te'o said he wasn't necessarily angry after the injury but found himself asking "that big question: Why?"
"You kind of start thinking, ‘What did you do wrong?' And a lot of times it's nothing. It's just the Lord knows exactly who he wants you to be. And it's all on his timing," Te'o said. "If it was my choice, I don't know where I'd be, but hopefully I'd be paid, I could buy my parents a house and take care of my family. That's always been my dream, to take care of my family. But that's just not how it goes.
"Now is that gonna happen next year? Maybe. Is it gonna happen the following year? Maybe. Is it ever gonna happen? I don't know. But that's where faith comes in. If you're living your life right, no matter what you do, you'll always find peace. And I think that's something that I have found."