NFL Combine: Te'o talks about football, too


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INDIANAPOLIS -- An hour before Manti Te'o was scheduled to face the national media, reporters were already sitting in seats, standing in walkways, waiting for the former Notre Dame linebacker to reach the podium.

In the past five weeks, most of America has wanted to see Te'o, wanted to ask him questions, listen to his explanations and wonder how it all could have happened. And it is no different at the NFL combine, where he might be the most scrutinized player in the history of the event.

And not just because of his football ability.

In a bizarre story that began as a heartwarming tragedy and ended with nationwide ridicule, Te'o was the victim of a scandalous hoax involving a fake online girlfriend -- Lennay Kekua -- who never existed. Saturday, he stood in front of the national media for the first time since the scam was uncovered and answered question after question about the episode.

They were many of the same questions he has been asked by NFL coaches and general managers.

"Quite a few teams asked me about it," Te'o said. "Some went to certain lengths, some just asked me to give them a brief overview and get straight to the business about football. They all asked me about it. It was, just tell me the facts. They want to hear it from me, and I basically tell them what happened."

Te'o said he has been interviewed by only two teams so far -- the Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers -- but is scheduled to meet with 18 others by the end of the weekend. It is not known if the Steelers are one of those teams.

He said he understands why all the NFL teams want to talk to him.

"Yeah, they want to be able to trust their player," Te'o said. "They don't want to invest in somebody they can't trust. They're trying to get to know you as person and as a football player. I understand where they're coming from."

Then he added, "It could be a hurdle, but it also could be a great opportunity to show them who you are."

Te'o went from being a sympathetic Heisman Trophy runner-up on the nation's No. 1 team to the central figure in an Internet scam known as "catfishing," where victims are duped by perpetrators pretending to be someone else.

The hoax was uncovered by Deadspin Jan. 16, shortly after Notre Dame lost to Alabama in the national championship game. Initially, it appeared Te'o was a willing participant in the hoax.

"It's definitely embarrassing," Te'o said. "Walking through grocery stores, I get people doing double-takes and staring at you. It's definitely embarrassing. I guess it's part of the process, part of the journey, but it's only going to make me stronger and it definitely has.

"I'm here. If I was still embarrassed, I wouldn't be standing in front of you."

Te'o, smiling easily and appearing relaxed, added, "It's pretty crazy. I've been in front of a few cameras, but not as many as this."

There is some debate where Te'o might go in the draft. He has been projected as a first-round pick by some, a second- or possibly even third-round pick by others. He played poorly in Notre Dame's national championship loss against Alabama -- the Crimson Tide rushed for 264 yards against the No. 1 Irish -- causing many to wonder which might hurt his draft stock more, that performance or the hoax?

Te'o has said he doesn't believe the scandal will affect his draft position. And he said he has received no indication from NFL teams that such will be the case.

"No, not really," Te'o said. "They all just want to hear from me what the truth was. They haven't really said anything about it affecting me. Some guys just talked for 30 seconds [about it], the next 14 minutes were just all plays and getting down to business.

Te'o has shut down his Twitter account and said he is not currently dating anyone. Through it all, he said the biggest thing he has learned is to be more understanding of people's problems.

"Everybody makes mistakes," Te'o said. "One of the things about what I went through is to empathize with those who are going through the same thing, those who are going through hard times or gaining attention they don't necessarily want. That just taught me to always give somebody the benefit of the doubt and say, 'You never know.' You never know what's going on with that person."

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Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac.


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