We are seated in the cafeteria at the NovaCare Complex, and I am explaining to rookie defensive lineman Daniel Te'o-Nesheim my interest in his story, and that Eagles fans were clearly curious during draft weekend when he became a third-round pick and that his immediate quote when asked by the media what he was doing at the time he found out about the draft was "I was just lying down and looking at the ceiling" elevated him to immediate cult status and that, well, there is a whole lot of mystery surrounding him.
"I understand," he said, laughing. "They don't know who I am."
We're going to find out very soon. There is a street legend side to Te'o-Nesheim already, and he has yet to play a down for the Eagles. He holds the record for career sacks at the University of Washington and yet when the Eagles drafted Te'o-Nesheim, there were very few scouting reports and only a YouTube six-minute clip of his highlights, and the immediate reaction was that of puzzlement. Critics dubbed the pick "a reach," even though the Eagles suspected that other teams were prepared to take Te'o-Nesheim in that very same third round (Te'o-Nesheim visited New England prior to the draft and was thought to be high on the Raiders' list, too).
He spoke very little in the post-draft period of time, those crazy few hours after a player hears the news that he was selected and his phone blows up and his world changes and all of a sudden he is a man with a job and a place to go. And then a week later, Te'o-Nesheim stood before the cameras at his locker at the NovaCare Complex and gave short, one-word answers, answering politely but very quietly and, once again, there were more questions.
Who is Daniel Te'o-Nesheim?
So that's what I set out to find out on Monday morning as Te'o-Nesheim and the rest of the rookie class reported to Philadelphia to dig into the NFL way of life for the next few weeks. In this time, the players will dig into the playbook, work out, become accustomed to the pace of this world and for a couple of days each week, go on the field and take part in team practices with only their fellow rookies and selected veterans.
A lot of the credit for The Making Of Daniel Te'o-Nesheim goes to Bern Brostek, a football coach at Hawaii Preparatory School. Te'o-Nesheim calls Brostek a "surrogate father" who "took me under his wing" as a track coach and a friend and who made Te'o-Nesheim understand how important it was to work harder than anyone else on and off the field. Brostek played offensive line professionally for the Rams from 2000-2007 and he remains a positive force in Te'o-Nesheim's life.
At Washington, Te'o-Nesheim's position coach, Randy Hart, had a strong influence before leaving Washington to go to Notre Dame. Hart is now at Stanford. He was once asked about Te'o-Nesheim and said, "Daniel is not good, he's great."
Anyway, Hart demanded that Te'o-Nesheim dominate every play. Reaching the backfield for a negative play wasn't enough. "Coach Hart wanted me to put somebody out of the game if I had the chance for a clean hit," said Te'o-Nesheim. "I remember one game when he gave me a minus grade and I had a tackle for a loss and he said, 'It wasn't enough. You should have put him out of the game."
It was a good thing for Te'o-Nesheim that he had the right male influences come into his life after the death of his father, David, when Daniel was 10 years old. David had an aortic aneurysm, leaving Daniel with his mother (Ailota) and sister. Daniel quit sports for a year and his family moved from Seattle to Hawaii after David's death, and Daniel's grandfather, a Norwegian, arranged for Daniel to attend Hawaii Prep.
"I was the man of the family in a way and that's how I look at myself now. It was weird being around women all the time, so it was a good thing for me to go to Hawaii Prep," said Te'o-Nesheim, whose father was Norwegian and whose mom is Samoan. "I felt like the odd man out, so going to boarding school was a getaway for me. It turned out to be beneficial for me. Had it not been for my grandpa, I would not have had the means to go to school there."
Te'o-Nesheim was a star football player and track athlete (shot put and discus) and then he attended the University of Washington and thrived despite some tough years on the field for the Huskies' program. Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian raves about Te'o-Nesheim's play and, more important, his approach to the game.
"The one thing I always want to say about him is amazing effort," says Sarkisian. "I've never seen a guy work, practice, play the way he plays with the effort that he plays with. And it shows. That's why he's so productive. That's why he's the all-time sack leader in the history of this school."
All of that, of course, is in the past. Te'o-Nesheim admits that some of what is said about him now is really not that true. He actually watched part of the draft, but then turned it off during the first round when the analysts started criticizing Tyson Alualu, taken 10th by Jacksonville. It was a personal affront to Te'o-Nesheim, who is proud of Alualu ("He's a hard worker. He's awesome. He's the highest pick from Hawaii, ever," said Te'o-Nesheim) and then he tuned in from time to time on days two and three.
Te'o-Nesheim, in fact, thought he might "sneak in" to the third round. That is the word that reached him from his agent based on conversations from other teams. His mother and his aunt watched the third round, part of it, and then "I couldn't stand watching it any more" and he drove 30 minutes north to his home. By that time, he figured the third round was complete, and he put a pillow on the floor to calm the nerves and relax and then the phone rang and it changed his world.
"The Eagles called. It was so great. I had just thrown a pillow on the ground and was about to go to sleep and then the phone rang. I wondered if it was one of those calls from a team saying, 'We're going to take you soon.' I didn't want to hear that," said Te'o-Nesheim. "Sometimes it doesn't happen.
"In my case, I didn't even see my name going across the screen because Colt McCoy (former Texas quarterback who was taken by Carolina one pick before Te'o-Nesheim went 86th overall to the Eagles) had just been selected and that's all they were talking about. But I knew I was an Eagle and that's all that mattered to me."
Te'o-Nesheim now needs to learn all the things the other rookies must learn -- technique, scheme, responsibilities. It isn't just about lining up and running past a less-athletic offensive lineman. At this level, the offensive linemen are every bit the athlete, and then some.
There are lifestyle changes -- Te'o-Nesheim has never been in a large Eastern city for an extended period of time, he has never lived in an apartment and he has never lived totally on his own -- that each rookie must overcome. It is, indeed, a day-by-day process. He played both end and tackle at Washington and he played great football.
But there is not one player who wants it more than Te'o-Nesheim. He is here to win a job and to stay on the 53-man roster for a long, long time.
"This is all I have going. I don't have backup plans. My family is fully supportive. They're trying to make my life easier so that I can do this," said Te'o-Nesheim. "I just hope that it works out. I know I'll give it everything I have. I love the fact that the veterans here work so far. I always thought I was the hardest-working guy in college, and then that first weekend here seeing how the veterans work was really exciting. I expected, from the stories that you hear, that veterans in general would coast a little bit. Not these guys. They work hard and those are the kinds of players that I want to be around."
He is around now, soaking it all in. This is his job, his obsession, his paycheck. You won't hear a lot from Te'o-Nesheim. He is not a sound byte. He is a quiet young man who somehow turns into a Tasmanian Devil on the football field.
"It's what I love to do. I really enjoy everything about the game of football," he said. "I want to give it my all and I do. I don't see why you would want to play the game any other way."