INDIANAPOLIS – For 14 minutes and 22 seconds Saturday, Manti Te’o went through an NFL interrogation.
Facing a throng of national reporters, the Notre Dame linebacker stood on a podium inside Lucas Oil Stadium and looked calm as he prepared for the onslaught of questions that were to follow.
“That’s a lot of cameras,” he said as he stepped up to the microphone.
They were there for the most eagerly anticipated media interview in the history of the NFL Scouting Combine, one in which Te’o responded to 34 questions in all.
Most, of course, were centered on the national scandal that erupted last month after it was revealed the inspirational story of Te’o playing through the death of his girlfriend was all a lie. Te’o never met Lennay Kekua. She was never hurt in a car accident, or suffered from leukemia, as the tale went.
She never existed at all.
Te’o — and Notre Dame — claimed the star was the victim of a hoax, one perpetrated by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, loosely described as an “acquaintance” of the player.
After the story unraveled Jan. 16, Te’o took part in two interviews, one with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, the other with Katie Couric.
But he had yet to take part in an interview where the gloves were off. Te’o stood in and took all the punches Saturday, including when he was asked near the end of the interview whether he was currently dating anyone “in real life” (he said he’s not).
“It’s definitely embarrassing when you’re walking through grocery stores and you’re … giving people double-takes to see if they’re staring at you,” Te’o said. “I guess it’s part of the process, it’s part of the journey. You know it’s only going to make me stronger and it definitely has.”
Te’o said he was trying to “enjoy the moment” of being at the combine, while hoping to put the scandal behind him and focus on football.
“I understand people have questions, but I’ve answered everything I could,” he said. “For me, I’d really like to talk about football.”
Te’o said every team he had met with at the combine had asked him about the incident to some degree.
“Some go to certain lengths, some just ask me, ‘give me a brief overview of how it was’ then they get straight to business,” he said.
Te’o has 20 formal interviews scheduled at the combine, including one with the Buffalo Bills.
“I think everybody’s going to ask him about that drama, but it’s just going to be a piece of the puzzle,” Bills Assistant General Manager Doug Whaley said. “We’ll treat it independently, just like we’re going to treat all the other guys that may have issues or may not have issues. This is one of the things we’re here for, is to fact find about all that stuff.”
Several NFL executives were asked about Te’o, and shared Whaley’s sentiment: they’d wait to draw their own conclusions.
“Personally, I don’t get caught up in everything that is swirling around him. I’m looking forward to sitting down and talking to him,” Denver Broncos Executive Vice President John Elway said. “I know him as a football player. He’s a very good football player. He’s going to have a successful career in the NFL.”
Minnesota Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman saw value in Te’o going through the media inquisition.
“We’re going to find out if he can handle the media or not,” Spielman said. “He’s getting a lot of experience in handling the media scrutiny, per se. … We’ll watch that. I think that’s a very valuable part of the process.”
Te’o said he waited so long to speak because it was a “whirlwind” for him. He described his life as “chaos” and wanted it to calm down before answering questions.
“It got overwhelming at times,” he said. “I think 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 own family in their home because there were people parked out in the yard and stuff like that. Something that I’ve always had a problem with is when I can’t do something about it; I can’t help. To know that my family was in this situation because of the actions I committed was definitely the hardest part for me.”
Despite the pain of being made a national laughingstock, Te’o said he never considered legal action against Tuiasosopo.
“I think that’s the worst thing you could do. Both families are going through chaos. There’s not only people camped out at my house, there’s people camped out at his house,” he said. “I went through what I went through and he went through his own share of stuff. … Always try and forgive. If you forgive, you’ll get the majority of the blessings.”
With Te’o dominating headlines on the TMZs of the world, it’s easy to forget he’s one of the best linebacker prospects in the draft. The 6-foot-1, 241-pounder was a first-team All-American and the Heisman Trophy runner-up, but was a non-factor in the national championship game won by Alabama, 42-14.
“That’s all on me,” Te’o said, adding that he was not distracted by the hoax, which he had learned about but was not yet made public. “I played hard and so did my team, but Alabama had a great game plan and so did we. They executed better than we did.”
“People have asked why he didn’t play so good in the Alabama game. I don’t know the answer to that,” Spielman said. “But from the view of the overall big picture, he is a very talented football player.”
The Bills are a linebacker-needy team, especially after cutting leading tackler Nick Barnett earlier this month. Te’o’s performance at the combine — on the field, in the meeting rooms, and in front of the media — will help to sort out where he’ll land in April.
Even if teams accept that Te’o was the victim in this sordid story, they still have to determine how concerned they are about a seemingly off-the-charts level of naivete.
“They want to be able to trust their player. 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, get to know you as a person and as a football player. I understand where they’re coming from.
“It could be a hurdle, but it could also be a great opportunity to show who you really are. That’s the way I’ve approached it, and it’s been a great growing experience for me.”
“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. “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 was asked how he had changed, and made specific reference to the day the news came out.
“For me I’ve learned just to be honest in anything and everything you do, from the big things to the small things. Secondly, to keep your circle very small and to understand who’s really in your corner and who’s not,” he said. “I think going off of the season my team and I had, there’s a lot of people in our corner. Then when Jan. 16 happened, there’s a lot of people in the other corner. I just learned to appreciate the people that I have that are with me and to just make sure you always try to turn a negative thing into a positive.”
After the 34th and final question was asked, an NFL public-relations official thanked Te’o, but the player had more to say.
“I’d like to thank everybody for being here. It’s been a hard but tremendous ride for me,” he said. “I’d like to thank my parents, my family, my friends, the University of Notre Dame and everybody who supports me. I couldn’t do it without all of you. Hopefully after this I answered the things I needed to answer and we can move on with football.”