Some of the same questions get asked every year, of every player drafted. Reporters gather around a speakerphone, and team media-relations staffers connect them with the giddy young man who has just been announced as the newest Eagle.
If it isn’t the first-round pick, who sometimes is on camera at the draft site when the choice is made, one of the questions is: “What were you doing when you got the call?”
Most of the time the player says he was watching the draft. Often he is celebrating with friends and family.
Then there was Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, a defensive end from the University of Washington who became the 86th overall selection of the 2010 draft when the Eagles selected him in the third round.
Te’o-Nesheim, with very flat affect, sounding much less than excited, told the conference call: “I was just lying down and looking at the ceiling.”
It is a story that comes up every year at draft time, when reporters reminisce, but as the Thursday start of the 2018 draft approaches, the story has assumed a different tone. Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, 30, died in his sleep last Oct. 29, apparently of natural causes.
“He went to bed and never woke up. That’s all I know,” said Steve Perry, athletic director at Hawaii Preparatory Academy in Kamuela, Hawaii, where Te’o-Nesheim had just finished his first year as head football coach when he passed away.
“One of the other coaches, they were together the night before at [that coach’s] house just laughing and watching TV, and everything seemed fine. They weren’t partying, they weren’t doing anything of that sort. He stayed over in their guest room for the night, and never woke up. … It’s a crusher.”
Death records aren’t public in Hawaii. At least one former Washington teammate, who flew to Hawaii for a memorial service, said there was talk of an enlarged heart. Te’o-Nesheim’s father died when Daniel was 10, of an aortic aneurysm.
Though coaches and former teammates lauded his work ethic, Te’o-Nesheim never lived up to his draft position with the Eagles. His rookie year, a shoulder injury helped limit him to six games. Tampa Bay signed him off the Eagles’ practice squad in November 2011 and Te’o-Nesheim ended up playing all 32 games for the Bucs in 2012 and 2013, starting 26. Then he was released, and his NFL career was over.
“I think he could have played some more if he wanted to,” said a former Eagles teammate, Jamar Chaney, who also was a member of the team’s 13-member 2010 draft class. “I think he wanted to be done with it and go do something else.”
Chaney, a high school football coach now in his native Florida, said he thinks success in the NFL has a lot to do with finding the right spot, in the right group. He said had the Eagles not fired defensive coordinator Sean McDermott following the 2010 season, things might have been different for several young defensive players of that era.
McDermott, now head coach of the Bills, said he respected Te’o-Nesheim’s effort and his intellect.
“He was a really good person. Quiet. When he was on the field, he had an unbelievable motor,” McDermott said. “He seemed like a deep thinker; he was very introspective.”
“He was a super-intense guy on the field, probably an overachiever a little bit. Off the field, really quiet, kind of clumsy, shy guy,” said Jeff Bechthold, who directs media relations at the University of Washington. “Very gentle and a little awkward. Thoughtful.”
The draft-night story didn’t surprise Bechthold.
“It didn’t occur to him [to worry about how he sounded]. I don’t think it was important to him, and I mean that in the best way,” Bechthold said. “He wasn’t interested in an image, that kind of stuff.”
At 6-3, 263, with a slim build, Te’o-Nesheim wasn’t overpowering. He was relentless, and that made him a star at Hawaii Prep and then at Washington, where he graduated as the school’s all-time sack leader with 30. But when you’re in the NFL, trying to maneuver around, say, Jason Peters, your toolbox has to contain more than effort.
“When you get to the league, there’s a different kind of athleticism,” said Kalani Aldrich, a teammate on the Huskies’ defensive line. Aldrich wanted to make sure the reporter understood that in the small world of Hawaii athletics, Te’o-Nesheim was a huge star, one of the best football players of his generation and a record-setting shot-putter. His death might have been a minor story in Philadelphia or Tampa, but in Hawaii, it reverberated.
“He was the hardest worker I’ve ever been around,” Aldrich said. “I’ve never seen anybody work so hard; he would piss in his pants during the games, and puke. His mouthpiece would come out and fall in the puke, and I watched him pick his mouthpiece back up and put it in his mouth. He would get IVs at halftime of every game. He’d sweat so much, and he never came off the field. … He never missed a game, was a starter for four years” during some hard times for the Huskies, who went 14-35 during Te’o-Nesheim’s four seasons in uniform.
Te’o-Nesheim gravitated back toward Hawaii Prep, his alma mater, at first just using the weight room to work out.
“We asked if he wanted to help out. He was great with kids; he was a big kid at heart, so he always had that relationship where he could talk with them, and it was sincere, it wasn’t just rah-rah. … He wasn’t ever talking down to them, he was just talking to them,” Perry said. “A couple nights [a week] he would just sleep on the floor in our locker room, get up and have a meal in our dining room, then go to practice.”
After two years as an assistant, Te’o-Nesheim was named head coach. It was a job that might not have appealed to a lot of ex-NFL players. The actual coaching stipend was $4,000, sweetened by an offer to let Te’o-Nesheim live in the dorms as a sort of monitor at the boarding school, have him supervise study halls, and eat in the cafeteria on a meal plan.
The meal plan was the clincher, Te’o-Nesheim joked to Perry. Despite his slender build, Teo-Nesheim was a prodigious eater. It was something everyone interviewed for this story mentioned.
“I’ve never met anyone … who could eat as much as Daniel,” said Te’o-Nesheim’s agent, Eric Kaufman. “It was astonishing. We once went to In-N-Out Burger and he ordered six double-doubles, and ate them all, along with an order of fries.”
Though the team went 1-7 last fall, Perry said that Te’o-Nesheim “always saw the bright side. … He was learning. It would have been nice to grow with him, watch him grow and get that success and maturity.”
Once the shock of T’eo-Nesheim’s death faded, “we laughed a lot,” Perry said, “telling stories about Daniel. That’s what he would have wanted.”
“Those kids were real lucky to have that guy as coach,” Aldrich said. “He was one of those guys that the world needs. A once-in-a-generation guy. I’ve never met anyone like him, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never meet anyone like him again.”