INDIANAPOLIS — Facing a mass of reporters for the first time since the bizarre story of the hoax involving his dead girlfriend broke last month, former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o took the podium at the NFL Scouting Combine on Saturday afternoon, expressing embarrassment and a desire to move on from the incident.
Standing before roughly 20 cameras and more than 100 reporters crowded around the stage, Te’o said he hoped to put it all behind him and focus on football. But attention turned to the saga by the second question of the news conference, to which Te’o responded: “Of the incident, I’ve said all I need to say about that. How I’m handling it going forward, is doing what I’m doing right now. Focusing on the moment, and focusing on football, and the combine.”
Te’o fielded another 32 questions over a 141 / 2-minute span, most of them related to the revelation that the story of his late girlfriend’s illness and death during his senior season at Notre Dame turned out to be untrue and that the girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never existed. Te’o, who had given three one-on-one interviews since January, remained composed throughout, though several times his voice wavered.
When further prodded about the hoax, he offered only: “I would say, I cared for somebody, and that’s what I was taught to do, ever since I was young. If someone needs help, you help them out, and unfortunately, it didn’t end up the way I thought it would.”
Asked why he continue to lie about the existence of Kekua for several days after he said he learned he had been duped, Te’o said: “Just, it was just a whirlwind of stuff. For me, 22-year-old, 21 at that time, you’re just trying to get your thoughts right. Everybody’s just kind of chaos for a bit, so you let the chaos die down, and wait until everybody’s ready to listen.”
Te’o said the toughest moment during the controversy “was a phone call that I got from my sister. She told me that they had to sneak my own family in their home because there were people parked 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 and knowing I can’t help, and knowing that my family was in that situation because of the actions that I committed was definitely the hardest part for me.”
He said he will not press charges against Roniaiah Tuiasosopo, the man allegedly responsible for the hoax.
“I think that’s the worst thing you can do,” he said. “Both families are going through chaos. . . . And so I always try to forgive. If you forgive, you’ll get a majority of the blessings, so I always try to forgive and it’s definitely benefited me.”
Te’o had already spent Friday, the combine’s first day, running a gantlet of medical and psychological exams and informal meetings with several NFL teams. The Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers had already given him formal interviews — closed-door meetings during which a player is grilled for 15 minutes by members of a team’s front office and coaching staff on football and personal matters. Te’o said he had another 18 scheduled. Only then would he finally be able to get to work out for talent evaluators.
According to Te’o, every NFL team he talked to had questions regarding the incident, but the length of the prodding varied.
The 6-foot-1, 255-pound linebacker was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy last season, when he helped lead Notre Dame to the Bowl Championship Series title game. He had been projected as a high first-round pick but there has been speculation that his stock could take a hit as a result of the hoax.
But several NFL decision makers indicated that while they will question Te’o on the incident, their ultimate concern is what kind of linebacker he is.
“We’ll bring him in,” New York Giants General Manager Jerry Reese said Saturday. “We’ll let him explain that situation for us. I think there’s people with a lot more issues than this issue. We’re more interested in what kind of football player he is, more than anything else. These things get blown out of proportion a little bit. But we’ll investigate it and see where it goes.”
Said Carolina Panthers Coach Ron Rivera: “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. 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.”
After an NFL media relations worker informed everyone that Te’o’s interview was over, the linebacker remained at the podium a minute longer to relay one final message.
“I’d just like to thank everybody for being here,” he said. “It’s been a hard but tremendous ride for me and my family and the University of Notre Dame. 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, and just hopefully, after this, I’ve answered the things I need to answer and, you know, we can move on with football.”