INDIANAPOLIS: There were texts and tweets and phone alerts. When the 15-minute warning went out, all in the media room at Lucas Oil Stadium packed the area around Podium C. Some had been saving front-row seats since a false alarm two hours earlier.
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was on the way.
Tabloid journalism and football collided Saturday, and the result was what one veteran reporter called the biggest story in NFL combine history. It was also the strangest scene, with Maurice Clarett’s appearance in 2005 a distant second.
LSU defensive end/outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo got a glimpse of the massive scrum when he arrived at his scheduled time. He was escorted upstairs for other obligations by league officials, who knew no one would leave Te’o.
“That’s a lot of cameras,” Te’o said as he gazed out at a two-tiered bank of video beasts and prepared for the assault.
Although he had obviously been coached on what to say, Te’o could not have handled the interview better.
Te’o claims he was the victim of a phony girlfriend hoax, then perpetuated the lie after he found out what really happened. He wouldn’t go into details about his relationship with Lennay Kekua, who turned out to be the invention of a troubled acquaintance, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Tuiasosopo said he disguised his voice to pose as Kekua, whom Te’o believed died of leukemia in September.
Exposed by Deadspin on Jan. 16, the hoax made national headlines. Katie Couric interviewed Te’o; Tuiasosopo got two days on Dr. Phil.
But the questioners Saturday were not the perky Couric or the sympathetic Phil McGraw.
That was clear near the end of the 14½-minute interview when one man asked, “Are you dating anybody in real life?”
“No, not right now,” Te’o answered, seemingly unfazed if he heard the entire question.
Jokes were posted on Twitter during the wait for Te’o and I got caught up in what seemed like fun, posting a photo (since deleted) of a microphone with no one behind it and labeling it the imaginary Te’o.
If he knows what’s going on behind his back, Te’o did not seem hardened by it. He was polite, calm and sincere. He opened up about his worst day, his embarrassment and what the scandal will mean to his NFL future. There is no clear-cut answer to the latter, although the Heisman Trophy runner-up could still be a first-round pick in the April 25-27 draft.
“I think the toughest moment, to be honest with you, was a phone call I got from my sister,” Te’o said. “She told me they had to sneak my own family in their home because there were people parked out in the yard. Something I’ve always had a problem with is when I can’t do something about it; I can’t help. To know that my family was in this situation because of the actions I committed was definitely the hardest part for me.”
Te’o boiled down his gullibility in the scam by saying he did what he was taught to do — to care for someone.
“Ever since I was young, if somebody needs help, you help them out,” he said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t end up the way I thought it would.”
Asked why he waited so long to tell the truth, Te’o said: “A 22-year-old, 21 at the time, just trying to get your thoughts right. Everything was kind of chaos for a little bit, so you let that chaos die down and wait until everybody’s ready to listen. The way we did I felt worked best for me.”
He said he never considered legal action against Tuiasosopo.
“That’s the worst thing you could do,” he said. “Both families are going through chaos. There’s not only people camped out at my house, there’s people camped out at his house. Always try and forgive. If you forgive, you’ll get the majority of the blessings.”
For a time, Te’o said he was paranoid when he went to the grocery store, giving people “double takes” to see if they were staring at him. He said that embarrassment has passed or he wouldn’t have been able to stand in front of the media horde Saturday.
As for his career, the issue becomes whether Te’o will be branded a liar, whether his teammates in an NFL locker room will be able to trust him.
“Manti is a good person with a good heart. He’s just got stuck in a bad situation,” Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert said at the combine last week.
Now the NFL must decide whether they believe that, whether they believe Te’o.
“The bottom line is, is he a good person and can he play football? That’s probably the most important thing he’ll have to answer,” Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
“The issue is not life’s over,” St. Louis Rams General Manager Les Snead said. “He’s 21. Life ends at maybe 80. He’s got a lot of healthy years left.”
He hopes never to answer these questions again, but Te’o said he goes forward a changed man.
“I’ve learned just to be honest in anything and everything you do, from the big things to the small things,” he said. “Secondly, to keep your circle very small and to understand who’s really in your corner and who’s not. Going off of the season my team and I had, there’s a lot of people in our corner. Then when Jan. 16 happened, there’s a lot of people in the other corner.
“I learned to appreciate the people [who] are with me and to make sure you always try to turn a negative thing into a positive.”
That might have seemed impossible a few weeks ago. Te’o now appears ready to put the cruel experience behind him, even if the rest of the world isn’t.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.