By Eric D. Williams The News Tribune
INDIANAPOLIS — Earnest and contrite, Notre Dame middle linebacker Manti Te’o answered questions for about 15 minutes from hundreds of reporters here at the NFL Scouting Combine on Saturday afternoon — the first time he’s talked with a full media group since a report surfaced on Jan. 16 that the death of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, was a hoax.
“It was just a whirlwind for stuff for me, a 22-year-old — 21 at the time — just trying to get your thoughts right,” Te’o said, when asked why he waited so long to publicly address the situation. “Everything was kind of chaos for a little bit, so you let that chaos kind of die down. And wait until everybody’s ready to listen.”
Te’o said he’s met with two teams so far, Houston and Green Bay, and he’s scheduled to meet formally with 18 more at the combine. Te’o said all the teams that have contacted him so far have asked about the incident.
And what are they asking?
“Just tell me the facts,” Te’o said. “They want to hear it from me basically what happened.”
Te’o said he’s not concerned with how the incident will affect his relationship with players in an NFL locker room, or his ability to assume a leadership role as the quarterback of the defense.
“No, I’ve learned the difference between the things that I can control, and the things I can’t control,” he said. “And hopefully by doing the things I can control well, I’ll have more favor in the other category. Whatever team I do go to, I’m just going to be me and work hard.”
And he said the hardest part of dealing with the aftermath of the reports is his family having to live with photographers camping out in front of their home.
“The toughest moment to be honest with you was a phone call that I got from my sister when she told me that they had to sneak my family into my own home because there were people parked out in the yard and stuff like that,” Te’o said. “That had to be the hardest part. And for me, something that I’ve always had a problem with is when I can’t do something about it. And I can’t help. So to know that my family was in that situation because of the actions I committed was definitely the hardest part.”
Te’o also lamented the staining of his family name.
“You treasure your last name,” he said. “That’s what you hold dear. That’s something that when you pass on, the only thing that stays here is your last name.”
Te’o said he feels shamed by the circumstances of the incident, but also has come to terms with it.
“You’re walking though a grocery store, and you’re kind of giving people double takes to see if they’re staring at you,” he said. “It’s definitely embarrassing. It’s I guess part of the process, part of the journey. It’s only going to make me strong, and it definitely has.”
Now, Te’o will find out in the coming months what type of damage the incident has done to his draft status.
But according to Carolina head coach Ron Rivera, he expects the emphasis to shift on the first-team All-American and Heisman runner-up’s play on the field.
“If he can handle that distraction and still be able to perform on the football field, I really don’t think it makes that much of a difference,” Rivera said. “Whatever happened is a set of circumstances that only he really knows what it was all about. We’ll talk about it.
“We’ll find out about it. The bottom line is, is he a good person and can he play football? That’s probably the most important thing that he’ll have to answer. I don’t think it’s going to hurt his draft stock. He’s coming here to improve his draft stock. I do think he’s a heck of a football player and I think he’s got a bright future in this league.”
Te’o still projects as first-round selection in most mock drafts. Seattle would be an unlikely landing spot for the Notre Dame middle linebacker, having already drafted starter Bobby Wagner in the second round last year.
Still, incidents like the one Te’o was involved with are reasons Seahawks general manager John Schneider has the team’s security personnel following draft hopefuls on social media web sites like Twitter an Facebook to get a better understanding of what’s going on in their personal lives.
“The Twitter stuff and the Facebook stuff his huge,” Schneider said. “It’s all a part of who that person is. The mistakes you make are not knowing the person. We can all kind of see and evaluate what kind of player he is. When you make mistakes, in my opinion it’s about not knowing the guy.”