Manti Te’o tackled the girlfriend hoax the same way he did ball carriers for most of his career — head on. The Notre Dame linebacker stood up to some hard questions during his 14-minute media session Saturday.
His appearance, Te’o’s first media conference since news broke that his Internet girlfriend was fictitious, drew a record crowd. It dwarfed the media interest Tim Tebow drew in 2010, Maurice Clarett in 2005 and Cam Newton in 2011.
“That’s a lot of cameras,” Te’o said upon arriving on the podium at Lucas Oil Stadium through a back door. “… It’s pretty crazy. I’ve been in front of a few cameras, but not as many as this.”
Te’o, a Heisman finalist, helped perpetuate a ruse that his girlfriend died of leukemia during the season. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo has admitted he made up the woman, Lennay Kekua, and created the Internet relationship with Te’o. Te’o supposedly discovered the hoax in December and informed Notre Dame that he was the victim of a “sick joke.”
Deadspin broke the story last month, but Te’o waited more than a week before speaking publicly about it for the first time with Katie Couric.
“I’ve learned just to be honest in anything and everything you do, from the big things to the small things,” said Te’o, who is not dating anyone. “Secondly, to keep your circle very small and to understand who’s really in your corner and who’s not. I think going off the season my team and I had, there’s a lot of people in our corner. Then when Jan. 16 happened [and the story broke], there’s a lot of people in the other corner. I just learned to appreciate the people that I have that are with me and to just make sure you always try to turn a negative thing into a positive.”
Te’o joked that NFL teams have not asked him about the Internet hoax, called catfishing. He met formally with the Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans on Friday night, and he has meetings scheduled with 18 other teams, including the Dallas Cowboys.
“Everybody wants to check his sincerity and see if you can trust him,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. “He just said, ‘Here’s my story’ and told us. He answered our questions. He wasn’t defensive. He stood his ground, wasn’t gun-shy. He had a lot of poise. He had it under control. He’s ready to move forward. I was impressed with the young man.
“He’s a darn good player, and we’re looking at inside linebackers. He’s an effort player. He can run and hit. There’s a lot to like.”
That is the thing that has been lost since the scandal broke: Te’o is a talented player. He had 464 career tackles, including 124 as a senior, and seven interceptions, all this season.
Te’o still is projected as a first-round draft pick.
“Whatever happened is a set of circumstances that only he really knows what it was all about,” Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “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.”
Te’o said his learning of the hoax in December was not to blame for his poor play in the BCS National Championship Game, a 42-14 loss to Alabama. Te’o had 10 tackles but missed several as the Crimson Tide rushed for 265 yards.
“Because I didn’t,” he said when asked why he hadn’t played well. “That’s all on me. 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.”
If nothing else, Te’o proved in his media interviews Saturday that he is coachable.