Manti Te'o believes he's been groomed for this from the moment he entered the league.
The Chargers traded up to select the inside linebacker 38th overall in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft, envisioning him growing into a leadership position on defense.
Slowly but surely, the inside linebacker has morphed into one of the most trusted voices in the locker room, shouldering significant responsibility both on and off the field. Whether it's a rookie who has been around for just over a month or an established veteran entering his second decade in the NFL, all eyes look to Te'o.
Entering his fourth season, he knows the time has come to take it to the next level.
"I have a bigger leadership role this year, and it's the role I'm most comfortable in," he said. "I look at myself as the voice of the defense, and I think I'm viewed that way. This is going to be my fourth year, and everything has come full circle. I'm more of an inclusive type of leader, and I like to make sure everyone feels important. They all have special roles to the success of our team. For me as a leader, my job is to make sure they know that. To make sure all 11 links on defense are playing as one and for each other."
One example of his leadership is the guidance he's already given to Joey Bosa. Te'o knows what it's like to play under the microscope as a highly-touted rookie, so he is uniquely positioned to offer advice on what to expect. Part of being a good leader is juggling the needs of each individual teammate.
"Joey is one of those rookies who gets it. He believes if he gets in there and does the work, good things come. And he is doing the extra work. He is taking care of his body. But what I told him is that this whole offseason leading into training camp, don't just prepare your body (but also) prepare your mind. Prepare it for the rigors of this season because as a rookie, yes you will be physically challenged, but it will be more of a strain on you mentally that you may not be as ready for."
As one of the longest tenured defensive players on the roster, Te'o has acquired a great deal of experience over his first three seasons. Whether that's overcoming a myriad of injuries or the tribulations of a difficult 4-12 season, they've all helped shape the type of leader he's grown into. Te'o believes he was ready for this moment earlier in his career, but understands that wasn't in the cards. Now that it's here, he is determined to make the most of it.
"You can't predict the future; all you can handle is how hard you work. I never would have predicted this (path) with the bumps and bruises of my first three seasons. Every player wants to have that 'Aha!' moment early in his career. For others, it takes longer. For me, it took a little bit longer than planned. I'm happy with the progress that I've made, but I know I can always do better. I think that moment is still coming."
Darrell Stuckey is a four-time captain and leader of the Bolts' special teams. He has firsthand experience on what important qualities it takes to spearhead a unit, and believes Te'o has it in droves.
"The biggest thing about being a leader is you have to lead by example, and Manti does that," Stuckey said. "You have to lead by example louder than any words. People want to see if you are a person to be modeled after. You have to look at your peers as your brothers, and you have to put them before yourself. Your love and joy for them has to be greater than your pride. As a leader, you have to be accountable for your actions and for theirs. Regardless of what happens, you hold everyone together. You don't shun somebody away. And Manti has all those qualities."
The quality that means the most to Te'o is the one for which his teammates respect him for the most. His work ethic. In fact, at the end of the day, that is what drives number 50 in all he does.
"I can't promise a lot of things, but I can promise I will always give it my all. I care about my teammates, and I give my all for them. I'm fearless in everything no matter what, and I give everything I have for them. My teammates mean everything to me. They've seen me hurt, and they've seen me banged up, but they know that when it comes down to it, I put everything on the line."
That work ethic, passion and dedication is evident to Brandon Mebane. A key member of the Seattle Seahawks' Super Bowl winning defense, Mebane has been around a number of standout leaders throughout his career. Still, Te'o's unique passion stuck out before he even signed with San Diego.
"I trained with Manti last year in Hawaii, and that was the first time I ever got to meet him," the nose tackle said. "I had known of him, but that was the first time we met. We were training, and I was like, 'Damn, Manti be working!' He works. He's a worker, and people notice that."
Te'o also believes being a leader includes improving on the field. Despite enjoying a breakout year in 2015 setting career highs with 107 tackles in 12 contests, he continues to add to his game.
"I'm trying to improve my patience. I want to be patient and trust in my speed to get from place to place. I think I've already made so much progress in that, and I'm seeing the results in OTAs. I'm able to make more and more plays, so I'm feeling good."