Te'o keeps poise during interview

BY Peter Schrager • February 23, 2013

I’ve never been to Pamplona, but if the Running of the Bulls is anything like the stampede of media members rushing en masse after former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was announced to the podium on Saturday at the Combine, I’ll be impressed.

The main event at this week’s NFL Draft Scouting Combine had nothing to do with what was happening on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium. No, it was a young man meeting with an estimated 200 media members — their claws out and recorders on — in a convention center hallway in the middle of the afternoon.

The questions came fast and they came hard. Make no mistake, this wasn’t an afternoon on Katie Couric’s couch.

“I’ve been in front of a few cameras, but never as many as this,” Te’o began his press conference on Saturday.

Just five weeks removed from being the central figure in a story involving an Internet hoax and a fake girlfriend that took the nation by storm, Te'o, 22, handled himself with class and poise on Saturday. He addressed every question head-on and in two instances got emotional. Te’o was open and honest. If he failed in his handling of the incident when it was first revealed to him, the young man aced the test of Saturday’s media throng.

Asked why he wasn’t open and honest about the situation from the outset, the 2012 Heisman Trophy runner-up responded, “It was a whirlwind of stuff for me — a 21-year-old kid, trying to get my thoughts straight. We wanted to let everything come out, and then have my side out there. The way that we did it, I felt, worked best for me. I'm just very grateful to those who helped me get through that time. I think it went as smoothly as it could."

"It got overwhelming at times,” he said of seeing and hearing his name on national news outlets for two weeks straight. “I think the hardest part was my name — not my first name — but my last name. You treasure your last name. That's something that when you're gone stays here, your last name. My last name is what I represent and my family.”

Te’o also got emotional while describing a phone call he received from his sister during the apex of last month’s media madness, detailing the need for his family to be snuck into their home due to the crowd on their front lawn.

After peppering Te’o with several questions about the girlfriend hoax and its aftermath, reporters moved on to ask him about football; the sport he’s looking to play for a living. Te’o had a dazzling 2012 regular season, but he struggled mightily in the BCS Championship Game loss to Alabama. He recorded three tackles and was invisible for much of the game.

"That's all on me," Te'o said of the Alabama game. "Alabama had a great game plan."

Asked about the Notre Dame linebacker’s performance that night, Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker said, “He had to go against [Alabama guard] Chance Warmack, so we didn't see him too much."

Te’o interviewed with the Texans and Packers on Friday and is set to meet with 18 more teams over the next few days in Indianapolis.

“Can he play football? That’s what I really care about,” one NFC general manager told me Friday night. “What happened in that bowl game versus Alabama? Where was he? That’s what I want to know. Those are the types of questions we’ll be asking him. That’s what we care most about.”

New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese explained, "We’re more interested in what kind of football player he is. These things get blown out of proportion a little bit."

“I just want to talk to him," Denver Broncos president John Elway said on Friday. "I don't get caught up in — having been in that role — I don't get caught up in everything swirling around him. I'm looking forward to sitting down and talking to him. He's a very good football player and he's going to have a successful career in the NFL."

Though he passed the media’s test on Saturday, Te’o could have a tougher time with the teams interviewing him over the next few days. Formal interviews last 15 minutes and are held behind closed doors. They go one after another in a rapid fashion. Anything goes.

“Sometimes, we like to see how a player will handle pressure or an unpleasant situation,” an AFC front office executive told me early on Saturday. “I’m sure [Te’o] will be facing some difficult questions.”

In 2010, Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland reportedly asked wide receiver Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute during a pre-draft interview. Though that’s an extreme example, teams do tend to ask questions that are outside of the usual comfort zone.

“We’ll ask them some personal questions, sure. We have guys who’ll do weeks of research on each one of these players,” Reese told me. “But we’ve only got 15 minutes with them this week. Football is the first priority. We want to know if the young man is a good football player and if he’s a good fit for our team.”

With another eight weeks until the NFL Draft in April, the Te’o story likely isn’t going away just yet. Te’o is just hoping the conversation can at least shift from his love life off of the football field to his production on it.

"It's been a hard but tremendous ride,” Te’o said in a rare "closing statement" at the end of his press conference. “Hopefully, after this, I've answered the things I needed to answer and we can move on with football."

Te’o conquered the running of the media bulls on Saturday.

The NFL is up next.

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