INDIANAPOLIS — The man who has become a national punch line took to one of the podiums in the NFL Combine media workroom Saturday afternoon, dozens of reporters in chairs, standing on chairs, and jockeying for position for the most anticipated news conference of the week.
The garish Under Armour-issued shirt linebacker Manti Te’o wore was a red camouflage pattern, and few would have faulted him if he had used it to blend into the background rather than answer questions for more than 14 minutes, the vast majority of which concerned the revelation in January that his deceased girlfriend, who had supposedly died just hours after his grandmother Sept. 11, was nothing but a hoax.
When “The Situation” was uttered over and over Saturday, it wasn’t in reference to the “Jersey Shore” cast member.
It was in reference to Lennay Kekua, the fictional girlfriend whom Te’o “met” through Twitter.
It was in reference to the unbelievable circumstances she had supposedly endured — a debilitating car accident, and then the diagnosis of leukemia as she was recovering from the crash.
It was in reference to their relationship developing over the telephone, and Te’o never having met her in person, not even traveling from Notre Dame to California for her funeral.
It was about the truth, that Kekua was really a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who had led Te’o to develop feelings for someone who didn’t exist.
It was in reference to one of the most embarrassing situations an athlete has dealt with in recent memory.
And to his credit — although his representatives from CAA Sports had certainly prepped him — Te’o handled his time in front of the reporters and cameras as well as possible.
“I was in . . . I cared for somebody and that was what I was taught to do,” Te’o said. “Ever since I was young — when someone needs help, you help them out. Unfortunately, it didn’t end up the way I thought it would.”
This past season, Te’o was the leader of Notre Dame’s defense, which ranked No. 2 in the nation. He led the Fighting Irish in tackles, and led the country in interceptions by a linebacker with seven.
His legend only grew when he played against Michigan State days after the death of his grandmother, and supposedly Kekua, and at the end of an undefeated regular season he collected a boatload of awards, and was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.
But his stock took a hit when he played poorly in Notre Dame’s loss to Alabama in the BCS national championship game, and then came the day when the website Deadspin published the truth, that Kekua wasn’t real.
That was Jan. 16, also the day when Te’o discovered that some of the people he thought were in his corner were not.
Though Notre Dame defended him from the beginning, it took Te’o a couple of days to discuss what had happened.
“It was just a whirlwind of stuff for me,” Te’o said. “I’m a 21-year-old at that time, and I was just trying to get my thoughts right. Everything was just chaos for a little bit, so you just let the chaos die down and wait till everybody is ready to listen.
“I’m just very grateful for those who helped me get through because I think it went as smoothly as it could.”
But that didn’t mean it didn’t come without cost.
Te’o talked about his name — his family’s name — being all over the news, of a phone call he received from his sister, when she said her family had to sneak into their house to avoid people camped out in the front yard.
“That had to be the hardest part,” he said. “And 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. So to know that my family was in that situation because of the actions that I committed, it was definitely the hardest part.”
Te’o had already met with two teams, the Texans and Packers, and said there were 18 more meetings scheduled. He knew he’d be asked what happened.
“They want to be able to trust their player, and you don’t want to invest in somebody you can’t trust,” Te’o said. “So with everybody here, they’re just trying to get to know you as a person and as a football player, and I understand where they’re coming from.”
Te’o has not gotten a sense from teams that his draft stock will be affected. He acknowledged that he was embarrassed, but that he’s moved past it.
“If I was still embarrassed, I wouldn’t be standing here,” he said.
After he’d answered the questions, Te’o offered a closing statement.
“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,” he said. “I’d like to thank my parents, my family, my friends, the University of Notre Dame, everybody who supports me, I couldn’t do it without all of you. Hopefully, after this, I answered the things I needed to answer, and we can move on to football.”
He makes a good point. It’s time to now see if Te’o has what it takes to be a top NFL linebacker.