INDIANAPOLIS – Even the man who has been at the center of the scrutiny over the past six weeks found the sight in front of him somewhat surprising Saturday afternoon.
“Wow, there’s a lot of cameras,” said the prospect wearing the number 32 dark red and black shirt standing in front of a couple dozen cameras and nearly 200 reporters in the media workroom at the NFL Combine.
Though his comment might have given the impression that he was caught off guard, it was actually the exact opposite for Manti Te’o in his media session for the NFL’s annual scouting meeting at Lucas Oil Stadium.
In the 15 minute news conference, the Notre Dame linebacker did as what he has already been doing with NFL teams: Answering questions about the girlfriend hoax that has dominated the conversation once the name Te’o is brought up.
“They all asked me about it,” said Te’o of the hoax, which was exposed by a report from Deadspin.com on January 16th. “Some go certain lengths, some asked me ‘Just give me a brief overview of how it was’ and then they get straight to business about football.”
Still that’s tough for many to do after the story of Lennah Kekua. The narrative was that Kekua-Te’o’s girlfriend-died of Leukemia in close proximity to the passing of his grandmother in September of 2012. Te’o mentioned the death of the pair as his inspiration for the 2012 season and became the rallying cry behind the linebacker’s candidacy for the Heisman Trophy along with Notre Dame’s run to their first BCS National Championship Game.
The Deadspin.com report was the first public evidence that Kekua didn’t exist and was part of a hoax developed by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a friend of the Te’o family. Notre Dame said that the linebacker notified them in early December that it was a hoax but the storyline continued through the national title game until the report came out in mid-January.
“It was a whirlwind of stuff for me. Twenty-two year old, 21-year old at that time. Just trying to get your thoughts right,” said Te’o on why he waited to come public in with the hoax. ” Everything was kinda chaos for a little bit so you let the chaos die down and wait till everybody’s ready to listen.”
That has been the case this weekend in Indianapolis. Te’o admitted that the whole experience was “embarrassing”, wishes he would have handled things a little differently but still was proud of his experiences during his senior season at Notre Dame. When asked if there were plans to ever meet the person he believed was Kekua, Te’o said there were talks of meeting but nothing concrete.
Simple details like that were the crux of what the coaches and general managers would ask Te’o during the meetings he’s had so far.
“Just tell me the facts,” said Te’o of what NFL teams have asked him about the hoax. “They want to hear it from me and I just basically tell them what happen.”
Whether it’s believed or not depends on a number of factors. While those in the public debate the validity of Te’o’s story, teams will use it to evaluate the linebacker along with his performance during workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend. Te’o says he doesn’t believe the hoax will cause him to fall in the NFL Draft, where he is projected to go in the first round, nor does he believe it will cause issues once he arrives with a team.
“I learned the difference between the things I can control and the things I can’t control. Hopefully by doing the things I can control well, I’ll have more favor in the other category,” said Te’o. “Whatever team I go to, I’m just gonna be me and I’m going to work hard and just do my best to help the team win and whatever happens, happens.”
Kapron Lewis-Moore believes he will do just that. Just moments before the beginning of Te’o’s news conference, the Notre Dame defensive lineman defended his former teammate and believes the qualities he shows as a football player will outshine the hoopla around the hoax.
“He’s a great dude. I’ve been playing beside him for three years now and, you know, that’s something he’s been going through but it’s not going to affect him,” said Lewis-Moore. “He’s a great leader and whoever gets a chance to draft Manti is going to have an excellent man.”
It’s that future, according to Te’o, that is helping to distance himself from a recently rough past.
“How I’m handling it going forward is doing what I’m doing right now,” said Te’o. “Focusing on the moment and focusing on football and the combine. Not everybody gets this opportunity to be here.”
Many have also not had to face the questions he has either.