SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After seeing Manti Te'o shave about one-tenth of a second off his 40-yard dash time Tuesday, hearing the linebacker sing down a hallway inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex confirmed the skip in his step.
Relieved, Te'o joked with a Notre Dame official over how to arrange gold helmets on a table. Relaxed, he interacted with familiar reporters covering Notre Dame's pro day. This would be as unofficial as the times recorded next to the linebacker's name, but Te'o looked lighter than he had in months — regardless of what the scale says.
"This is possibly the best day, a big, big burden off your shoulders,'' a smiling Te'o said after his last open workout before the NFL draft begins April 25. "It feels like your birthday.''
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Some might say Te'o getting clocked at his fastest 40 time of 4.69 was a gift from a leprechaun holding a stopwatch. Three NFL scouts told the Tribune they timed Te'o closer to the mid-4.7 range. Specifics aside, a consensus emerged that Te'o met his goal of improving his 4.82 time at the NFL scouting combine that increased pressure on Tuesday's performance in front of representatives from 27 teams.
"I put in overtime working on the 40,'' Te'o said. "I just expected to run faster than I ran at the combine and that's exactly what I did.''
Apparently this affects Te'o's draft position, but I struggle grasping why. No matter how many men make a living these days measuring strength and speed of NFL prospects, tenths of seconds outweighing four years of college football still defies logic. Too often the football speed of an instinctive player such as Te'o on Saturdays in the fall becomes hard to measure and easy to ignore on a Tuesday in March. Has anybody in Chicago ever wondered how fast Bears linebacker Lance Briggs ran the 40?
Yet ESPN considered Te'o running a big enough deal to construct a set trackside. All that was missing from the Te'o hype was Katie Couric and Dr. Phil. After the 243-pound Te'o exploded out of a stance on his way up the draft board, scouts stared intently at their stopwatches like teenagers at their iPhones.
But nothing really changed, a point not lost on Te'o. Teams that project Te'o as a starting NFL linebacker didn't base that evaluation on the numbers deemed so important Tuesday. He proved himself worthy of a first-round selection over four seasons in a gold helmet, not 4.7 seconds in orange sprinter's shoes.
The inner strength through adversity that impressed scouts was unrelated to Te'o bench-pressing 225 pounds 21 times. His NFL viability will be judged most on how he dealt with real offensive linemen, not fake girlfriends during what Te'o called Tuesday "the hardest time in my life.''
Getting manhandled by Alabama's offensive line exposed Te'o's weakness getting off blocks, but the All-American's success against elite competition in his other 48 career starts at Notre Dame make the national-championship game the exception more than the rule.
"It's about your film,'' Te'o said. "They've seen what I can do on a football field. That's what I'm comfortable with. Find ball. Hit ball. Make plays.''
Retired Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, who played 10 seasons, summed it up more accurately and bluntly in a tweet.
"Can he time up a blitz, take good angles, bend his knees?'' Leber wrote. "That's what matters, not this 40yd crap.''
The Bears could do worse than finding out for themselves. Executive scout Jeff Shiver represented them instead of general manager Phil Emery or any assistant coaches — which could be interpreted as a lack of interest in Te'o. But be careful drawing conclusions in the shrouded mystery of the draft world.
Even after signing veteran free-agent linebackers D.J. Williams and James Anderson to replace Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach, the Bears lack the youth and stability Te'o offers the position. Whether Emery uses the No. 20 selection or trades down in the first round, he could justify taking Te'o if Georgia's Alec Ogletree goes as the first inside linebacker, as many expect.
"He makes some sense,'' NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said of Te'o and the Bears. "There's still a need for a young inside linebacker on that team.''
The Vikings, who own the 23rd and 25th picks, favor drafting a linebacker over signing Urlacher, according to a high-ranking team source. Mayock believes the Giants at No. 19 like Te'o, who acknowledged noticing the Bears parted ways with Urlacher.
"I saw that on a ticker when I was playing Madden 2013 (and) was just like, 'That's crazy,''' Te'o said. "I wasn't too sure how to respond. I was like, 'Oh, wow. That was very sad.'''
More happy days like Tuesday await Te'o — and the team lucky enough to draft him.