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INDIANAPOLIS — “Manti Te’o Day" at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine began with an ironic twist around noon local time. Approximately 200 reporters swarmed a podium to hear from the victim of a hoax that captured the attention of the country.
Te’o didn’t show, leaving everyone staring and photographing an empty podium, which led to plenty of jokes at Te’o’s expense.
His media availability was a false alarm, as everyone was more than two hours early for the “show.” When the real press conference occurred, the crazy spectacle — from a media perspective — was countered by Teo’s ease in handling the questions, punctuated by a classy closing statement.
The most decorated player in college history faced a media contingent larger than other “intriguing” prospects at recent Combines, like Tim Tebow and Cam Newton.
“I said all I needed to say about (the hoax),” Te’o said at the start. “How I’m handling it going forward is doing what I’m doing right now, focusing on football and the Combine. Not everybody gets the opportunity to be here. I’m sure there are thousands and thousands of people who would like to be here in Indianapolis. I’m just trying to enjoy the moment.”
The significance of his responses to questions from the media pales in comparison to his answers inside interviews with NFL teams this week. Te’o was asked if any team did not ask him about the infamous incident involving a fake girlfriend, Lennay Kukua. “No,” he laughed.
Te’o said that teams wanted to know the facts from his point of view. “They’ve all just wanted to hear it from me what the truth was. … Some guys, I’d briefly describe it for 30 seconds, and the next 14 minutes is all plays, getting down to business. That’s how I prefer it.”
Known for his high character during his college career, Te’o said he understands why teams are interested in the hoax.
“They want to be able to trust their player, and you don’t want to invest in someone you can’t trust,” he said. “Everybody here, they’re just trying to get to know you as a person and a football player."
Te’o explained some of the negative consequences of his story reaching the national spotlight, including embarrassment to him and to his family.
“Definitely embarrassing,” Te’o said about being hoaxed. “You’re walking through a grocery store and you get double takes thinking people are staring at you. Part of the process is part of the journey. It’s only going to make me stronger.”
Over a month after the incident, and with two months until the draft, Te’o was asked if he still feels that embarrassment.
“If I was still embarrassed, I wouldn’t be standing here.”
Most of the details of the story have become public since Te’o spoke to ESPN’s Jeremy Schapp and CBS’ Katie Couric, but he disclosed a new story on Saturday, illustrating the residual, negative impact this has had on his family.
“The toughest moment was a phone call that I got from my sister, because she told me that she had to sneak my own family into their home because there were people parked in the yard,” Te’o said. “That had to be the hardest part. … To know that my family was in this situation because of the actions I’ve committed was definitely the hardest part.”
Te’o discussed some of the things he has learned from going through the experience, from empathizing with others who are going through hard times and giving them the benefit of the doubt, to paying close attention to those in his circle.
“(I’ve learned) to keep your circle very small and to really understand who’s in your corner and who’s not,” he said. "Going off the season my team and I had, there were a lot of people in my corner. When January 16th happened, there were a lot of people in the other corner.”
No other player had to face anywhere close to the scrutiny Te’o did this weekend, and will throughout the draft process, and he’s been under the microscope since Deadspin.com first broke the story that the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy had been duped. The media hoard in front of Te’o was a story in itself.
“It’s pretty crazy. I’ve been in front of a few cameras, but not as many as this,” Te’o said. “I was (surprised by the coverage). It got overwhelming.”
It seemed fitting for a player to enter the Combine under circumstances we’ve never seen before to have a “closing statement,” something not seen in this setting.
“In closing, I’d like to thank everybody for being here. It’s been a hard and tremendous ride for me and my family and the University of Notre Dame,” Te’o said. “I’d like to thank my parents, family, my friends, the University of Notre Dame, and everyone that supports me, I couldn’t do it without you.”
Te’o was certainly coached for the highly anticipated meeting with reporters, but still, his poise at the podium helped calm the circus that has followed him since mid-January.
“Hopefully after this,” Te’o concluded, “I’ve answered the things I need to answer and we can move on with football.”