Written by: Colton Strickler, MLR Correspondent. Photos: San Diego Legion/V.Rappleyea.
SAN DIEGO LEGION FULLBACK MIKEY TE’O FOUND HIMSELF AT A CROSSROAD IN 2018.
Just one match into Major League Rugby’s inaugural season, Te’o went knee-to-knee with Austin Elite Rugby’s fullback Sione Fangaiuiha as he went to kick the ball and tore his ACL. The Legion went on to win the match and eventually make the playoffs, but Te’o had to turn his focus on the long road to recovery.
“It was just a long process,” Te’o says of his knee injury. “It was very tough.”
To understand how far the 25-year-old has come in the last year, it’s important to understand how he got himself to the position that he did.
Before he began playing rugby, Te’o played defensive line for Long Beach Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, California, which happens to be one of the best high school football programs in the United States. Long Beach Poly has produced more NFL players (58) than any other high school in the country.
Two years before he graduated in 2011, Te’o’s father took him down to San Diego to watch the 2009 USA Sevens tournament that took place at Petco Park in San Diego. It was there, in the same city that his career has taken form, where he first developed his love for the game.
“Me and my dad, we drove up to San Diego and I just got hooked,” Te’o explained. “I watched some sevens. I watched USA. I watched Samoa play. Then three years later I made the sevens team.”
Following the trip to San Diego, Te’o joined Belmont Shore’s under-16 team to sharpen his skills. He progressed through the U16s, U19s and then to the men’s team with stops with the Eagles along the way. He made his first sevens tour with the Eagles in 2012 in Gold Coast, Australia.
His time with both the Eagles and Belmont Shore eventually earned him an opportunity with the San Diego Breakers of the now-defunct Professional Rugby Organization in 2016, the league’s only year of operation. Te’o led the Breakers in tries with three, but San Diego went 4-8 and finished third in the table.
After PRO Rugby folded, Te’o went back on the sevens circuit.
“In between the pro team, I went back on the sevens circuit,” Te’o explained. “I got called back in. I was playing USA 15s at the beginning of the year, USA sevens in the middle of the year and then moved back to 15s for the summer which led to MLR starting up last year.”
Unfortunately for Te’o, his first MLR season would only last 70 minutes. He knew he was going to have a tall hill to climb to get back to playing the type of rugby he knew he was capable of. That’s exactly what he did. Te’o returned to rugby during the Legion’s second match of the 2019 season, nine months after his knee surgery, a completely different player than he was when he left.
“Mike’s comeback from a twelve month ACL rehab, following injury the first game of MLR last season, has been staggering,” Legion head coach Rob Hoadley says of his fullback. “He returned for the second game of this MLR season against Seattle at home, scoring a decisive try in that game.”
Te’o finished the match with eight carries for 107 meters and a try. He also completed all four of the tackles he attempted in the match to help propel the Legion to a 17-13 victory over the defending-champion Seawolves. Getting there wasn’t easy.
“It was brutal,” Te’o says of his rehab process. “It was slow, hard work. I worked hard every day.”
It was during that rehab process that Te’o made the decision to not only rehab his knee but reshape his entire life at the same time.
“I learned a lot about myself when I got injured,” Te’o says. “I didn’t like the man I was becoming so I wanted to raise my own personal standards on how I live my life. I started going back to church. That helped me. That motivated me. I just found God and he’s been blessing me.”
While knee injuries often change players for the worst, Te’o seems to have changed for the better. Anyone who saw him play before the 2019 season has seen the changes that he’s made to his body. He came into Major League Rugby’s second season looking like a new player. In changing his life, he has changed his body for the better and it’s paying dividends on the pitch.
“I started training my own discipline,” Te’o says of the changes he’s made. “I wake up every morning and I pray, I do 100 push-ups and then do 130 sit-ups. My goal was just three weeks straight and now I do that every morning. I don’t miss a day and I just built that discipline. I made it a habit and just obsessed over trying to be the best version of myself that I can be. Going to church every Sunday. I’ve just been praising God. God’s been blessing me with another opportunity to play rugby and now I play for Him.”
No one has seen the growth that Te’o has made quite like his head coach. Hoadley, who was an assistant coach on the same Breakers team tin 2016, has had a front row seat for it all.
“Mike is an incredibly intelligent payer that reads the game very naturally,” Hoadley says of Te’o. “In doing so he often puts himself in great positions to exploit attacking space. Once he has created those opportunities, he has an explosive burst of speed and power that is extremely difficult for defenses to stop. On top of that threat, Mike is always looking for defensive cues that allow him to distribute to other players in space if the defense does condense around. He is an extremely unselfish man on and off the field, and massively respected by all of his teammates.”
“I’ve actually played three years for Coach Hoadley,” Te’o says of his head coach. “I don’t think there is another head coach that works as hard as him. He’s on it 24/7. He loves every little bit. He cares about every player and just worries about every little detail. Having a coach like that, that works that hard, you can only want to work hard for him as well.”
With a relationship like the one that Te’o and Hoadley have created coupled with the mindset Te’o approached the season with, it’s not hard to understand why he is having the type of season that he is. In the 12 matches that Te’o has played in this season, he has not logged a full 80 minutes just once. In that match, a 46-15 win over the Glendale Raptors, Te’o carried the ball 12 times for 154 meters and two tries in 72 minutes of work. Over the course of the season, he has carried the ball 85 times for 977 meters, five line-breaks, eight tackle-breaks, and seven tries. On top of all that, he has also dished out nine try-assists, which ranks third in the MLR.
“With the tools he has at his disposal, he is exciting to watch as he can change the pace and direction of attack so quickly,” Hoadley says of Te’o.
In the Legion’s last victory, a 31-21 victory over the Utah Warriors on May 18, Te’o carried the ball six times for 76 meters and a try in an 80-minute performance. That match took place on May 18, exactly one year and two days after Te’o’s knee surgery. When you put his performance in perspective, it shows how far he’s come in a short amount of time.
“To contribute so consistently after such a long injury shows what a diligent professional Mike is,” Hoadley says. “He is an emotional leader of San Diego Legion, and the perfect role model to every young rugby player in America.”
Te’o’s play is just one of the reasons that San Diego became the first team to clinch a playoff spot in 2019. If they can secure two points in the table against the visiting NOLA Gold on Sunday evening, they’ll lock up the top seed heading into the semifinals. The opportunity to play for the MLR Championship Shield will come right at the time that Te’o feels like he’s playing the best rugby of his life.
“Personally I do believe that,” Te’o says of whether he’s playing his best rugby. “I play with a lot more faith now. Before, I was kind of just playing to please the crowd, or please my fans or please my family. Now I’m only literally just playing to please God. I took this quote that says, ‘True leadership is obtained by able example and not for vainglory.’ I don’t do it for the fans. I don’t talk to the fans when they talk to me during the game. I literally just focus on playing rugby, keeping faith, keeping the faith that we will have a successful game and just believing.”
That belief has gotten both Te’o and the Legion this far. Now, they’re just two wins away from the MLR Championship Shield.
After what Te’o has done in such a short period of time, he’s a tough man to bet against.