Manti Te’o went from being Notre Dame’s golden boy, Heisman Trophy runner-up, BCS National Championship Game captain, to being a national laughingstock who was either a naïve 21-year-old who fell for a Catfish story or an egomaniac who basked in the spotlight of a tall tale he knew to be false — or both.
But on Saturday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, the middle linebacker prospect — identified as LB-32 this weekend — had to go in front of the assembled circus of media members and discuss the “incident,” the national title game, his family and his future.
“This is pretty crazy. I’ve been in front of a few cameras, but not as many as this,” marveled Te’o at the packed house at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Given every opportunity to melt under the heat lamp, the Hawaiian played the press conference to near perfection, with a balanced mix of humility and sincerity, along with a touch of self-deprecation.
On post-scandal mindset:
“How I’m handling it right now is focusing on the moment and on football and the Combine. Not everybody gets this opportunity to be here. I’m sure there’s thousands and thousands of people who would like to be here in Indianapolis. So, just trying to enjoy the moment.”
On his poor play against Alabama:
“That’s all on me. I played hard. And so did my team.
On Lennay Kekua:
“I cared for somebody. And that’s what I was taught to do, ever since I was young. When somebody needs help you help them out. Unfortunately, it didn’t end up the way I thought it would.”
On why he didn’t make plans to visit Lennay Kekua:
“I did. We made plans. Obviously it didn’t work out.”
On waiting to explain his side of the Catfish story:
“From our point of view, let everything come out first and then have my side come out. So the way that we did it I felt worked best for me. I’m just very grateful for those who helped me to get through that time. I think it went over as smoothly as it could.”
On moving forward from scandal:
“I’m just looking forward to getting ready, getting straight to football. I understand that people have questions. But I think I’ve answered everything I could. And, for me, I’d really like to talk about football.”
On what he would bring to an NFL team:
“What I bring to the table is a lot of heart, a lot of energy and somebody who works hard.”
On any possible regrets:
“I could have done some things different, obviously. Could have done a lot of things different to avoid all this stuff.”
On being embarrassed:
“This is definitely embarrassing. You’re walking through grocery stores you kind of like give people double-takes to see if they’re staring at you. It’s definitely embarrassing. I guess it’s part of the process, part of the journey. But it’s only going to make me stronger, and it definitely has.”
“If I was still embarrassed, I wouldn’t be standing in front of you.”
On understanding why NFL teams ask about the scandal:
“They want to be able to trust their player. You don’t want to invest in somebody who you can’t trust. With everybody here, they’re just trying to get to know you. They’re trying to get to know you as a person and as a football player. I understand where they’re coming from.”
On what he has learned from this ordeal:
“I’ve learned, first, to be honest, in everything you do — from the big things to the small things. Secondly, to keep your circle very small and to really understand who’s really in your corner and who’s not. Going off the season that my team and I had, there were a lot of people in our corner. And then when Jan. 16 happened, 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 make sure you always try to turn a negative thing into a positive.”
On the toughest moment through all of this:
“The toughest moment, to be honest with you, was a phone call I got from my sister, where she told me that they had to sneak my whole family in their home, because there were people parked out in the yard and stuff like that. That had to be the hardest part. For me, something that I’ve always had a problem with is when I can’t do something about it, when I can’t help. To know that my family was in this situation because of the actions that I committed was definitely the hardest part for me.”
On taking legal action against Ronaiah Tuiasosopo:
“No. That’s the worst thing you could do. Both families are going through chaos. There’s not only people camped out at my house, there’s people camped out at his house. I went through what I went through and he went through his own share of stuff. I think that’s the worst thing for me to do is to do that. Forgive. If you forgive, you’ll get majority of the blessings. I’ve always tried to forgive and it’s definitely benefited me.”
On whether or not he has a girlfriend:
“No. Not right now.”
On impact of craziness on his perspective:
“As people we have to realize that we’re all people. Somebody is somebody’s son, somebody is somebody’s daughter. You know what I mean? And I try to picture it that way. And would you want somebody doing that to your son? Would you want somebody doing that to your daughter? And if not, then why do it? Through this whole experience, I’ve learned that.”
“In closing, I’d just like to thank everybody for being here. 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. Hopefully after this, I answered the things I need to answer and we can move on with football. Thank you, everybody.”
Te’o said he has already interviewed with the Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers — a pair of 3-4 defenses picking toward the end of the first round who could use a middle backer — and claims there are 18 official interviews with NFL teams on his schedule. After today’s press conference, those teams may spend more time talking X’s and O’s on the chalkboard than they do XOXOs on text messages with a fake Internet girlfriend.