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Manti speaks: Te'o addresses 'the hoax' and more

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For more on college and pro athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.

NFL Combine offers chance to restore image

Sunday, February 24, 2013 - 12:01 am

INDIANAPOLIS -- Manti Te'o strode to the Lucas Oil Stadium podium and soap opera clashed with football.

Theoretically the Notre Dame All-America linebacker was here to talk about his NFL draft prospects at the NFL Combine, the annual meat market where players are prodded, pushed and tested to determine if they are worth an investment of millions of dollars.

But reality demanded far more Saturday afternoon. There was The Hoax. The Imaginary Girlfriend. The long delay before Te'o gave his side of it. All the drama that had generated national attention and turned Te'o's once inspiringly clean world upside down.

A quick review: Te'o claimed to have a girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who had died of leukemia last fall after being in a car accident. It was later revealed they had never met in person, but had communicated only on the Internet and by phone. Then it turned out the girl didn't exist other than in the imagination of a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Te'o was the victim of, apparently, a hoax also known as Catfishing.

Te'o needed a strong Combine performance -- off the field as much as on it -- to boost his NFL draft stock. Before the hoax he was considered a top-5 pick. Now projections have him between No. 13 and No. 20.

So, in front of 800 or so media packed in an area designed for 400, Te'o spoke.

Was he coached? Of course.

Was he impressive? Yes.

Will it make a difference in the draft?

We'll see.

As far as the message, let's say Te'o hit all the key points.

Embarrassment has faded, he said, but the biggest lesson never will

“I've learned to be honest in everything you do. Keep your circle small. Understand who's in your corner and who's not. Appreciate the people who are with me. Try to turn a negative into a positive.”

The toughest moment, he said, was the pain he caused his family. At the height of the craziness, he got a phone call from his sister who said they had to sneak their family into their house because of all the media parked in the front yard.

“That was the hardest,” Te'o said. “My family was in the situation because of actions I committed. It should never get that way.”

And then:

“Seeing my last name out there. You treasure your last name. When you pass on, that's the only thing that stays with you. You see my last name everywhere and it represented my family …

“I'm looking forward to getting to football. I understand people have questions, but I'd like to talk football.”

Yes, every NFL team Te'o has met with has asked him about it. He's talked to a lot of teams, but only had formal Combine interviews with two -- the Green Bay Packers and the Houston Texans -- before his press conference. He said he expects to have 18 more by the end of the Combine.

“Some go to certain lengths (about talking about the incident). They want to hear the truth in my words. Some ask for a brief overview and then get to football.”

Te'o said he understands the incident could cost him in the draft, although indications are it will come down to his speed, football skills and whether teams believe he is up to the demands of being a NFL player.

“Teams have to be able to trust players,” Te'o said. “You don't want to invest in somebody you can't trust. They want to get to know you as a person and a player.

“It could be a hurdle or it could be an opportunity to show who you really are. That's the way I've approached it.”

Of course, he said, he has regrets.

“I could have done things different to avoid this. It was embarrassing. You walk into a grocery store and people do double takes staring at you.

“It's part of the process, part of the journey. It only makes me stronger.”

Here are some other highlights in his 14-minute press conference:

1) The incident: “I said all I needed to say about that. How I'm handling it is doing what I'm doing now. I'm focusing on football and the moment and the Combine. Not everybody gets this opportunity. I'm sure there are thousands who would like to be here. Try to enjoy the moment.

“I cared about somebody. That's what I was taught to do. When someone needs help, you help them out. Unfortunately it didn't end up the way I thought it would.”

2) On his poor performance in the national title game loss to Alabama: “I didn't play well. That's all on me. I played hard. So did my team. Alabama had a great game plan and so did we. They executed it better.”

The incident, he added, was not a distraction and didn't contribute to his poor play.

3) On what he's learned in the last few months: “I've learned to be honest in everything you do. Keep your circle small. Understand who's in your corner and who's not. Appreciate the people who are with me. Try to turn a negative into a positive.

“Everybody makes mistakes. I've learned to empathize. Give somebody the benefit of the doubt.”

4) On the kind of player the team that drafts him will get: "What I bring to the table is a lot of heart and energy. Somebody who works hard. Somebody who hates to lose. I hate losing more than I like to win. Those times that I lose, that feeling sticks with me. A team will get somebody who is humble, who works hard, who doesn't say much and who will do everything it takes to win.”

5) On was he worried about becoming the butt of locker room jokes when he gets to the NFL:

“I learned the difference between the things I can control and the things I can't. By doing the things I can control well, I'll have more favor in the other category.

“I'm just going to be me, work hard and do my best to help the team win. Whatever happens, happens.”

In other words, the soap opera ain't over.