By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
The Manti Te’o circus rolled through the NFL Scouting Combine on Saturday, pushing all other stories off the stage.
The former Notre Dame linebacker is at the center of a hoax surrounding the online persona of Lennay Kekua. Te’o reportedly believed he was in a relationship with a real person who died of leukemia in the fall around the same time he lost his grandmother.
Acquaintance Ronaiah Tuiasosopo has admitted to duping Te’o, but the whole sordid affair — that broke just days after the Fighting Irish’s blowout loss against Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game — refuses to go away.
Some view Te’o as a victim, others as a co-conspirator.
Facing a phalanx of cameras, and hundreds of media members, Te’o seemed genuine in his responses at Lucas Oil Stadium. But he provided few new details and made no secret that he’s trying to put the entire episode behind him.
“I’ve said all I need to say about that,” he said. “How I’m handling it going forward is doing what I’m doing, focusing on the moment, focusing on football and the combine. Not everybody gets this opportunity to be here. I’m sure there’s thousands and thousands of people who would like to be here in Indianapolis. Just trying to enjoy the moment.”
Te’o might be ready to move on, but it could take awhile for others to catch up.
His nearly 15-minute media session was broadcast live on NFL Network and replayed later in the night. Interest in his appearance was so intense, in fact, that hundreds of media surrounded an empty podium for more than 10 minutes after an erroneous report emerged suggesting the session would take place at noon.
And the media weren’t the only ones anxious to probe the linebacker’s mind. Te’o said he’s already met with the Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans, and he has 18 more team visits scheduled.
“I just want to talk to him,” Denver Broncos executive John Elway said during his media session Friday. “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. 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. I’m looking forward to sitting down and talking to him.”
Te’o is looking forward to those meetings, as well. And he understands the hoax is going to be topic on every team’s mind.
“Quite a few teams asked me about it,” he said, referencing informal meetings as well as his two official visits. “Some go to certain lengths, some just ask me, ‘Just give me a brief overview of how it was’ then they get straight to business.”
Are there any teams that haven’t asked about the hoax?
“No,” Te’o said, and then laughed ruefully. “They all ask me about it,”
On Monday, Te’o will get his chance to impress teams on the field when linebackers go through their individual drills.
That also will be an important part in the process. Apart from the unwanted attention caused by the Kekua saga, Te’o also is dealing with questions about his play in the loss to Alabama.
He came into the game as the Heisman Trophy runner-up and was being talked about as a possible high first-round draft pick, But he was dominated by a physical Alabama offensive line — that has four players in Indianapolis this week — raising questions about his effectiveness against NFL talent.
“That’s all on me,” Te’o said. “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.”
After the hoax was revealed, Notre Dame officials said Te’o had shared the truth with the school in the weeks leading up to the championship game. He’s said to have learned Kekua did not exist during a phone call in early December. But he said the emotions of the saga did not affect his play.
Te’o never played the victim card Saturday. He owned up to poor decisions that added to his embarrassment, and he said his only regret came from a phone call with his sister who said his family had to be sneaked in through a back entrance to their home because so much media had descended on the front lawn.
“Just I care for somebody, and that’s what I was taught to do,” Te’o said, summarizing his involvement with Kekua. “Ever since I was young, if somebody needs help, you help them out. Unfortunately, it didn’t end up the way I thought it would.”
Te’o said he’s received no indication the hoax will hurt his draft stock, and it’s clear he’s ready to turn the page.
As he stepped down from the podium, he paused and offered an unsolicited closing thought.
“It’s been a hard but tremendous ride for me and my family and the University of Notre Dame,” Te’o said. “I’d like to thank my parents, my family, 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. So thank you, everybody.”