INDIANAPOLIS – 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 in the Internet romance he had with a girlfriend he never met, and again, he tried 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 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 awhile 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, and it was so compelling that it turned Te’o into a Heisman Trophy front-runner as he was leading the Irish to an undefeated 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, athletic director Jack Swarbrick announced 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 done only 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.
It’s pretty crazy, Te’o said. I’ve been in front of a few cameras before, but never as many as this.
When word leaked Te’o would speak about noon, reporters immediately surrounded the podium. Over the next 25 minutes, rumors circulated that Te’o’s agent would speak from the podium. That did not happen. Te’o made 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. If I was embarrassed, I wouldn’t be able to stand in front of you.
The only thing that really matters in Indianapolis, 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 18 interviews left.
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. 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?