NDIANAPOLIS — Manti Te’o walked into a crowded room of reporters Saturday, took a breath and settled in for 15 minutes of NFL scouting combine history.
Again, the former Notre Dame linebacker explained how he had been duped into an Internet romance he had with a girlfriend he never met. He did his best to turn the page on an embarrassing chapter by talking football. This time, he even got to see it play out on live television 12 yards away — where three muted flat-screen monitors were in direct view of Te’o.
He answered every question with thoughtful deliberation and tried to provide clarity on a hoax that turned one of the nation’s most inspirational college football players into the butt of national jokes.
“I cared for somebody. That’s what I was taught to do ever since I was young. Somebody needs help, you help them out,” Te’o said.
Later he added: “People doubted me because I took a while to come out. From our point of view, we wanted to let everything come out first, and then let my side come out. The way we did it, I thought, worked best for me.”
Te’o’s news conference was the most anticipated event of the NFL’s second-biggest offseason weekend, which brought the makeshift media room inside Lucas Oil Stadium to a virtual standstill — twice.
The too-good-to-be-true story began with Te’o’s incredible performances after learning his grandmother and what he believed was his girlfriend had died within hours of one another in September. Te’o said it inspired him to play his best football all season, and it was so compelling that it helped turn Te’o into a Heisman Trophy contender as he was leading the Fighting Irish to an undefeated regular season and into the national championship game.
On Dec. 26, Te’o notified Notre Dame officials that he had received a call from his supposedly dead girlfriend’s phone three weeks earlier.
The school investigated and on Jan. 16 — after Deadspin.com broke the story of the fake girlfriend — athletic director Jack Swarbrick announced at a news conference that Te’o had been duped. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, 22, later said he created the online persona of Lennay Kekua, a nonexistent woman who Te’o said he fell in love with despite never meeting her in person.
Since then, Te’o had only done a few one-on-one interviews.
On Saturday all that changed as many of the 800 credentialed media members surrounded the podium in rows that went eight deep. Te’o wore a tie-died red-and-black workout shirt.
“It’s pretty crazy,” said Te’o, who has played most of his games on national television and was one of the most recognizable college players last season. “I’ve been in front of a few cameras before, but never as many as this.”
Only two scenes from the combine over the past 15 years could even compare to what Te’o had to contend with Saturday.
The first came in 2004 when former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett was allowed to participate in the combine after a court ruled he should be allowed to enter the draft after finishing high school only two years earlier. That decision was later reversed.
The other time was 2010, when Heisman Trophy winner and two-time national champion Tim Tebow stepped to the podium in Indianapolis and everyone, including those listening to Packers coach Mike McCarthy, sprinted to the opposite end of the room for Tebow.
This was different.
When word leaked Te’o would speak at about noon, reporters immediately surrounded the podium. Over the next 25 minutes, rumors circulated that in a rare and possibly unprecedented move, Te’o’s agent would speak from the podium. That did not happen. There also was speculation that Te’o might deliver an opening statement like the then-injured Michael Crabtree did in 2009 and Cam Newton did two years later. That did not happen, either, though Te’o did make a closing statement in which he thanked his family, friends and fans for standing by him during this tumultuous month.
“It’s definitely embarrassing. You walk into grocery stores and people give you double takes to see if they’re staring at you,” he said before explaining he’s moved on. “If I was embarrassed, I wouldn’t be able to stand in front of you.”
The only thing that really matters in Indy, though, is what team officials think. Te’o said in the two formal interviews he’s had, with Green Bay and Houston, they have asked about the hoax. He has another 18 interviews left.
Will it hurt his draft position?
Former NFL executive Bill Polian, architect of four Super Bowl teams in Buffalo and two in Indianapolis, has been adamant that it won’t, and coaches and general managers seem to agree.
Most say they are more concerned with the red flags of other players — drug use, alcohol abuse, academic woes and even criminal allegations — than they are with Te’o’s tale.
“Somebody that’s not truthful, that’s big, to me. I’m a big fan of the ‘Judge Judy’ show. And when you lie in Judge Judy’s courtroom, it’s over. Your credibility is completely lost. You have no chance of winning that case,” San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said Friday. “I learned that from her. It’s very powerful, and true. Because if somebody does lie to you, how can you ever trust anything they ever say after that?”
Two questions later, he was asked whether that meant the reigning NFC champs would avoid Te’o in April’s draft.
“No. I wouldn’t say that,” Harbaugh said.
Te’o and the general public weren’t the only ones watching the interview session Saturday.
Team officials are taking notes, too.
“Honestly, it’s a distraction. 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,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said before Te’o spoke. “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?”
On the field, Te’o’s is one of the top linebackers available.
Last season, he won the Maxwell Award, Bednarik Award, Butkus Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Lombardi Award and Walter Camp national player of the year and finished second in balloting for the Trophy.
But there are concerns. Te’o was asked if the undercurrent of the hoax explained his poor play in Notre Dame’s BCS championship game loss to Alabama. He has said it didn’t.
“They want to be able to trust their players. You don’t want to invest in somebody you can’t trust,” Te’o said. “With everybody here, they’re just trying to get to know you as a person and as a football player, and I understand where they’re coming from.”
But the hardest part has been seeing the impact it’s had on those around him.
In a phone call, Te’o said his sister explained how the family had to sneak into its own house because of the people parked in the front yard, and he also said he empathized with the chaos it has caused Tuiasosopo’s family. He said he has no plans to sue, either.
Instead, Te’o just wants to forget about the hoax and focus on football.
“I’ve learned first, just to be honest in everything you do, from the big things to the small things. To keep your circle very small and to really understand who’s in your corner and who’s not,” he said. “Going off of the season my team and I had, there were a lot of people in our corner, and then when Jan. 16th happened, there was a lot of people in the other corner. I’ve just learned to appreciate the people that I have that are with me.”