INDIANAPOLIS — The spectacle surrounding Manti Te’o at the Scouting Combine was something that no NFL prospect had ever seen before. Hundreds of reporters from around the country surrounded Podium B on Saturday afternoon eagerly awaiting the presence of the former Notre Dame linebacker whose infamous relationship with fictitious girlfriend Lennay Kekua was arguably the most widely discussed sports-related topic ever.
Te’o’s press conference made Tim Tebow’s much-anticipated appearance at the Combine in 2010 seem relatively unimportant. When Cam Newton met with the media in 2011 following a BCS National Championship, a Heisman Trophy victory and controversy surrounding allegations that his father had basically tried to sell his college athletic services, that didn’t match the magnitude of Te’o’s arrival. Not even star quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck drew this extreme level of attention last year.
“That’s a lot of cameras,” Te’o said right as he stepped up to the microphone.
Those cameras had been lined up in their spots for hours. Earlier in the day, when NFL Network announced that Te’o was scheduled to speak soon, reporters began jockeying for position. After an extended period of time passed, a new report surfaced that Te’o would be delayed by several hours. Slowly, as word spread, a certain amount of media members began to dissipate. Others refused to leave, willing to wait it out.
Eventually, Te’o emerged.
“It’s pretty crazy,” he said. “I’ve been in front of a few cameras, but not as many as this.”
Unlike the rest of the draft prospects, Te’o wasn’t asked much about football. One Katie Couric interview aside, Te’o hadn’t yet directly faced the media pressure.
“If I was still embarrassed, I wouldn’t be standing in front of you,” Te’o said.
In the weeks immediately after reports of Te’o’s relationship with Kekua first came out, though, the 22-year-old wasn’t quite as comfortable about the entire situation.
“For anybody to go through, it’s definitely embarrassing,” Te’o said. “When you’re walking through grocery stores and you’re kind of like giving people double-takes to see if they’re staring at you, it’s definitely embarrassing. I guess it’s part of the process, it’s part of the journey. You know it’s only going to make me stronger, and it definitely has.”
The grocery-store stares weren’t his only embarrassing and challenging moments.
“I think the toughest moment, to be honest with you, was a phone call that I got from my sister where she told me that they had to sneak my own family in their home because there were people parked out in the yard and stuff like that,” Te’o said. “That had to be the hardest part. And for me, something that 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.”
It wasn’t just reporters who wanted to know more about his story; NFL teams did, too.
“They all ask me about it,” Te’o said. “Some go to certain lengths, some just ask me, ‘Just give me a brief overview of how it was,’ then they get straight to business. They want to hear it from me. Just tell them basically what happened.”
By late Saturday afternoon, Te’o had already met with the Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans, and he was just getting started. By the time Te’o flies home, he’ll have met with a total of 20 teams.
When the Packers and Texans asked him about what happened with Kekua, Te’o understood why NFL teams are curious.
“They want to be able to trust their player,” Te’o said. “You don’t want to invest in somebody you can’t trust. With everybody here, they’re just trying to get to know you, get to know you as a person and as a football player. I understand where they’re coming from.”
Te’o is projected as a late first-round pick after a terrific senior season nearly made him only the second defensive player to ever win the Heisman Trophy. But now, with all of this hanging over his head, it’s possible Te’o could fall further down the draft board.
“They haven’t really said anything about it affecting me,” Te’o said.
More likely to affect Te’o in the draft was his poor performance in Notre Dame’s national championship game loss to Alabama.
“That’s all on me,” Te’o said, adding that his off-the-field issues were not a distraction in that game.
It’s difficult to imagine any NFL prospect ever generating this amount of Combine hype again. Te’o’s story was so unique that it piqued the interest of more than just football folks.
Te’o handled the intense pressure well. Considering it was the brightest spotlight ever shone on one player at the Combine, that’s an impressive accomplishment.