Composed and honest, Te'o impresses in combine press conference
INDIANAPOLIS -- He's had way more than his 15 minutes of infamy since, as he so delicately put it, "January 16th happened,'' but Manti Te'o used his 15-minute session with the NFL media wisely Saturday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Notre Dame linebacker may have come across as hopelessly naive and embarrassingly gullible throughout the bizarre saga of his fake, dead girlfriend, but Te'o showed me that he has a solid, realistic grasp of his situation now, and knows what needs to be done to mitigate the scandal's impact on his nascent NFL career.
Meeting with an overflow crowd of media members at the NFL Scouting Combine -- the likes of which maybe only Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Maurice Clarett have seen -- Te'o was open enough, repentant enough and mature enough to start changing the narrative of a story that really has no precedent when it comes to a prospective NFL player.
Te'o said a lot of what needed to be said, and he said it with a sense of poise, humility and directness. When I asked him if he understands why NFL teams here are eager to get to the bottom of the melodrama and how he became embroiled in it, he didn't flinch. He gets it that deception can be a deal-breaker.
"They want to be able to trust their player,'' he said, toward the end of his 36-question session with reporters. "You don't want to invest in someone [you] can't trust. Everybody here, they're just trying to get to know you. They're trying to get to know you as a person and a football player.''
That's exactly right. Before they hand you the money, and a future in the game, they want to know what they're buying. Both on the field, with all their combine drills, tests and measurements, and off. Te'o isn't here just to prove he's a first-round talent, he's here to prove to NFL clubs that his character survived the hoax that captivated the nation last month.
Plenty of players arrived in Indianapolis with red flags attached to their names. But Te'o had a story unlike anyone else. It was more sensational, more shocking and frankly more confusing than any off-field issue NFL clubs have ever had to sort through in the process of player scouting. And it all spoke to his integrity level. How much did he know about the catfishing episode, and when did he know it?
"For me, I've learned just to be honest in anything and everything you do, from the big things to the small things,'' said Te'o, in what amounted to an acknowledgement of some level of duplicity in the Lennay Kekua affair. "I could have done some things different, obviously, done a lot of things different to avoid all this stuff ... [The honesty issue] could be a hurdle, but it could also be an opportunity to show how you really are. That's the way I've approached it and it's been a big learning experience for me.''
Maybe now, the learning experience part of it is definitely over. Te'o said he has already met with Houston and Green Bay here, and has scheduled interview sessions with 18 other clubs. Focusing on the moment and focusing on football is his best play at this point. Perhaps, after this, he's practically disaster proof. After the level of national humiliation he has endured, what about your typical NFL scrutiny will get to him?
"It's definitely embarrassing,'' Te'o said of the scandal. "When you walk into the grocery store and you get people giving double takes and they're sitting there staring at you, it's definitely embarrassing. I guess it's part of the process, part of the journey. It's only going to make me stronger and it definitely has.''
Without a doubt, for some NFL teams the bigger, more important question to start answering this week about Te'o is why he got so manhandled against Alabama in the national championship game against Alabama? His torso still bears the imprint of Crimson Tide guard Chance Warmack from the pounding he took in the 'Bama rout, and Te'o draft stock could wind up being damaged far more by that performance than by the hoax saga.
Te'o has refused to blame his personal issues for his lousy showing against Alabama, and didn't take that easy out once again on Saturday, a move I expect NFL personnel types to like. They don't want to hear that anything going on off the field can affect his game to quite that degree, even if it was a crisis that obviously consumed him prior to the hoax story being reported publicly.
So when asked if the fake-girlfriend saga was a distraction leading up to his BCS egg-laying, Te'o replied: "No. That's because I didn't [play 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.''
The NFL this weekend will continue to sort through the particulars of Te'o's story, but let's not kid ourselves. The football stuff matters more than anything else. He probably needs to post a 40 time in the 4.6s to assure himself a spot in the lower third of the first round, and he'll be subject to the same nitpicking of his drill work as every other NFL prospect.
But so far, Te'o said, he hasn't gotten a sense that his standing in the NFL's eyes has been irreparably damaged by January's embarrassing developments.
"No, not really,'' he said. "[Teams] have told me that they want to hear it from me what the truth was. They haven't really said anything about it affecting me. Some guys just talk briefly for 30 seconds and the next 14 minutes is all plays and getting down to business. That's how I prefer it.
"I'm just looking forward to getting ready and getting in shape for football. I think I've answered everything I could, and from here I'd really like talk about football.''
Understandable, if not perhaps a bit unrealistic. The story will follow Te'o into whatever NFL city and locker room he gets assigned via the draft. But his approach to Saturday, and his willingness to confront the story head-on, no doubt did him quite a bit of good. He began the process of blunting the issue this weekend, and as long as he puts the football side of things in order at the combine as well, I'd be surprised if he didn't come off the board at some point between No. 22-32 in the first round.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Texans head coach Gary Kubiak found Te'o poised in his interview with the team, and said the Heisman runner-up "wasn't gun-shy'' or "defensive'' when it came to talking about his recent past. "He answered our questions,'' Kubiak told the newspaper. "There's a lot to like.''
Te'o did the same with the media. He might have come off as a tad coached at times, but he hit almost all the right notes Saturday. In doing so, he gave us a version of the same basic message he is likely sharing with the teams. He made a mistake of judgment, tried to run from it a bit to hide his embarrassment, and finally confronted it when forced to. It was a messy saga, but it will not prove fatal. And if he can still play, the hoax will not define him in the long run. I'm guessing inside linebacker needy teams like No. 28 Denver and No. 32 Baltimore are very interested.
"I think I've learned the difference between the things I can control and the things I can't control,'' Te'o said. "Whatever team I go to, I'm just going to be me. I'm going to work hard, I'm going to do my best to help the team win. For teams, I tell them, 'You'll always get somebody who's humble, works hard, doesn't say much and will do everything it takes to win.' ''
Te'o couldn't really afford to stick to his credo about not saying much this weekend at the combine. He needed to talk, and to supply some answers to more than a few of the glaring questions -- both to the media and the NFL teams that might draft him and invest in his future. From what I heard, for Te'o and his attempts to move on, it was time well spent.