Teo doing tough balancing act at NFL combine
INDIANAPOLIS — Manti Teo walked into a crowded room of reporters Saturday, took a breath and settled in for 15 minutes of NFL scouting combine history.
Again, the former Notre Dame linebacker explained how he had been duped in the Internet romance he had with a girlfriend he never met, and again, he tried to turn the page on an embarrassing chapter by talking football. This time, he even got to see it play out on live television 12 yards away — where three muted flat-screen monitors were in direct view of Teo.
He answered every question with thoughtful deliberation and tried to provide clarity on a hoax that turned one of the nation’s most inspirational football players into the butt of national jokes.
“I cared for somebody. That’s what I was taught to do ever since I was young. Somebody needs help, you help them out,” Teo said.
Later he added: “People doubted me because I took a while to come out. From our point of view, we wanted to let everything come out first, and then let my side come out. The way we did it, I thought, worked best for me.”
Teo’s news conference was the most anticipated event of the NFL’s second-biggest offseason weekend, which brought the makeshift media room inside Lucas Oil Stadium to a virtual standstill — twice.
The too-good-to-be-true story began with Teo’s incredible performances after learning his grandmother and what he believed was his girlfriend had died within hours of one another in September. Teo said it inspired him to play his best football all season, and it was so compelling that it turned Teo into a Heisman Trophy front-runner as he was leading the Fighting Irish to an undefeated season and into the national championship game.
On Dec. 26, Teo notified Notre Dame officials that he had received a call from his supposedly dead girlfriend’s phone three weeks earlier.
The school investigated and on Jan. 16, athletic director Jack Swarbrick announced at a news conference that Teo had been duped. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, 22, later said he created the online persona of Lennay Kekua, a nonexistent woman who Teo said he fell in love with despite never meeting her in person.
Since then, Teo had only done a few one-on-one interviews.
On Saturday all that changed as many of the 800 credentialed media members surrounded the podium in rows that went eight deep. Teo wore a tie-died red-and-black workout shirt.
“It’s pretty crazy,” said Teo, who has played most of his games on national television and was one of the most recognizable college players last season. “I’ve been in front of a few cameras before, but never as many as this.”
Only two scenes from the combine over the past 15 years could even compare to what Teo had to contend with Saturday.
The first came in 2004 when former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett was allowed to participate in the combine after a court ruled he should be allowed to enter the draft after finishing high school only two years earlier. That decision was later reversed.
The other time was 2010, when Heisman Trophy winner and two-time national champion Tim Tebow stepped to the podium in Indianapolis and everyone, including those listening to Packers coach Mike McCarthy, sprinted to the opposite end of the room for Tebow.