More than 10,000 college prospects have been selected since the NFL began its draft 78 years ago. Not a single one sent general managers scrambling to gauge the potential toxicity that could be associated with the kind of distraction that’s riding shotgun with Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o into Thursday night’s first round.
The instinctive middle linebacker with the unquestioned passion for the game is a seven-time national award winner, a Heisman Trophy runner-up and clubhouse leader among modern athletes and their thermonuclear-sized social media meltdowns. Guess which of those will reverberate the loudest when draft day serves up another glucose rush to hyperactive NFL reporters who can be more relentlessly annoying than children chirping, “Are we there yet?” from the backseat of a cross-country car ride.
In case anyone has forgotten and can’t wait until being bombarded with the story again Thursday night, Te’o claims he was tricked into falling in love with Lennay Kekua, a sweet gal who was neither real nor a gal, nor someone Te’o actually met in person during a lengthy relationship. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a California pastor and acquaintance of Te’o’s, created Kekua out of thin air, Internet savvy, a fake voice and, as he told ABC’s Dr. Phil, romantic feelings for Te’o.
“What happened to Manti drew so much mass media appeal because it was kind of a weird thing and it happened to a football player,” said Vikings safety Harrison Smith, a strong advocate for filling the Vikings’ crater at middle linebacker with Te’o, a friend and former college teammate. “It’s something that’s never really happened to anyone else, so it was different. Unfortunately, it just took off like crazy.”
Smith is one of five former Fighting Irish players on the current Vikings roster who were acquired by General Manager Rick Spielman. He’s also one of three who played with Te’o at Notre Dame and wants to play with him again. Armed with the 23rd and 25th picks on Thursday, Spielman has done his due diligence and clearly is interested in Te’o, who is expected to be selected somewhere in the bottom half of the first round.
The trouble begins
Sept. 12, 2012, was the day the story began making its runaway wrong turn into the public eye. Tuiasosopo staged Kekua’s “death” that day, which was the same day Te’o learned of his grandmother’s death. Three days later, Te’o mentioned the deaths in a postgame interview after a dominant performance in a win over Michigan State. From there, even venerable Sports Illustrated fanned the heartwarming tale of a young man whose Heisman Trophy chase was dedicated to the tragic death of his longtime girlfriend.
Sympathy blossomed even as things began to unravel behind the scene. Tuiasosopo called Te’o as Kekua on Dec. 6 to say she was still alive. Two days later, Te’o stuck to the script of Kekua’s death during a national interview, later prompting some to believe he was in on the hoax behind what became the biggest story in college football.
After Deadspin.com exposed the hoax on Jan. 16, Te’o waited three days before explaining himself in an interview with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap. Five days after that, he was shedding tears on Katie Couric’s show on ABC. Basically, Te’o said he was the victim in a humiliating deception of which he had no clue how to escape. A week later on Dr. Phil’s show, Tuiasosopo spent two days taking full responsibility for completely hoodwinking an innocent Te’o.
Obviously, that didn’t solve all of Te’o’s problems.
“Anybody to go through this, it’s definitely embarrassing,” Te’o said. “You’re walking through a grocery store and you kind of like give people double-takes to see if they’re staring at you. It’s definitely embarrassing. And I guess it’s part of the process, part of the journey. But you know what? It’s only going to make me stronger. And it definitely has.
“It could be a hurdle. But it could also be a great opportunity to show who you really are. That’s the way I have to approach this. It’s been a great learning experience for me.”
The fallout begins
Meanwhile, reporters were left to question what all they should question when writing feature stories. Never mind that Te’o’s parents and teammates also believed that Kekua was real.
“Basically, if I meet you for the first time, I may tell you, ‘Hey, I just bought a pet monkey.’ And your first reaction will be like, ‘OK. Great. So?’ ” Notre Dame running back Cierre Wood said during the NFL scouting combine in February. “It’s the same thing that happened with Manti. He told us about his girlfriend, yeah. But it’s not like we’re then going to be like, ‘OK, what’s her social security number? Where does she live? What does her mom do for a living? What grade is her little sister in?’ It was along the lines of, ‘That’s his business. I’m going to stay out of it.’ ”
Now, the question shifts to how all of this will affect Te’o on draft day. Although he was absolved of participating in the hoax, is falling for it and being perceived as gullible, immature and less intelligent any less problematic? Is there a long shelf life on a story that seems fatigued but could catch its breath and live longer than a pair of Twinkies? Is Te’o equipped to handle the situation if it refuses to die? And, finally, in light of what the Jets went through last season with Tim Tebow, is there reason to worry about the pitfalls of exposing one’s team to an exhausting hot-button story that transcends football?
“Here’s the biggest thing with me for Te’o,” NFL analyst Mike Mayock said. “Prior to this incident, from an intangibles perspective, he was off the charts. He was plus, plus, plus. People thought he might be a Ray Lewis, that kind of guy to galvanize people in the locker room. Best case scenario, he’s lost that. That huge, positive intangible is gone.”
Not so fast, says Smith.
“There won’t be any problems in the locker room,” Smith said. “No doubt, no matter where he goes, guys are going to make fun of him at least a little bit. But I know Manti and I don’t think it’ll be a problem. It’s not like he did anything malicious or that he’s a bad guy or anything.
“I don’t think he was making anything up. I think he was just a little naïve maybe.”
A football mentality
When it comes to football, however, Smith said Te’o has the mental toughness to withstand anything thrown his way. By all accounts, that’s what he displayed while being verbally pepper-sprayed by reporters at the scouting combine.
“This is a Mormon kid from Hawaii who came to the freezing cold of Indiana to play for Notre Dame, a Catholic school, and he thrived,” Smith said. “The No. 1 thing about Manti is he’s all about playing football. Guys are going to make fun of you no matter what happens, especially as a rookie. You’re going to get poked fun at a little bit. Manti is the kind of guy who will just roll with it. Once he starts making plays, which he will, guys will forget about everything that’s happened.”
It’s uncertain how teams view the girlfriend hoax. What is known, however, is every team that’s interviewed Te’o has asked him to explain it. Spielman watched Dr. Phil for the first time in his life and admits he’s called on his young sons to help the old man get a better grip on social media and all this “tweeting or twittering.”
Spielman is especially interested in Te’o. He has no starting middle linebacker, a need for a three-down playmaker and a penchant for picking Golden Domers. The three who played with Te’o (Smith, safety Robert Blanton and tight end Kyle Rudolph) have given the green light on his character.
“I was at Notre Dame’s pro day and hung out with Manti and those guys,” Blanton said. “I told Manti to come on up to Minnesota because it’s like Notre Dame up there. He would be a great fit. He’ll be great dealing with the scrutiny he’s going to face. He’s a strong guy physically and mentally. He was the main man at Notre Dame. He won’t have any trouble.”
Headed for the NFL
Draft experts differ significantly on where they think Te’o will be selected. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. projects him as the 20th pick to Chicago, which needs a replacement for Brian Urlacher. But his ESPN cohort Todd McShay thinks Te’o will slide to No. 32 as Baltimore’s replacement for another future Hall of Famer, Ray Lewis.
“I tried to get him down to Minnesota because it makes so much makes sense at No. 23,” Kiper said. “They desperately need a middle linebacker. It would be perfect for what they do there. Rick Spielman’s brother, Chris Spielman, was the same thing. Great production, not a great 40. Chris Spielman had a heck of a career [at middle linebacker] in the NFL.”
Two other factors besides the hoax could be in play if Te’o tumbles: His 40-yard dash times and his poor performance in Notre Dame’s blowout loss to Alabama in the national championship game. After running a 4.82 at the scouting combine, Te’o ran a 4.71 at his pro day. That was respectable, but not in the same ballpark as the 4.5s run by San Francisco’s Patrick Willis (No. 11 in 2007) or Carolina’s Luke Kuechly (No. 9 in 2012).
“First of all, I know he missed some tackles in the Alabama game, but one game does not define a career,” Smith said. “As for the 40 times, Manti plays with an instinct and recognizes things so quickly that he plays faster than anything anyone is going to measure at a combine or a pro day.
“Whatever was asked of him, he could make himself fit. He played in a 4-3 early on in our careers and then he played a 3-4 at the end. Bottom line is Manti Te’o can play football. He’d be an awesome fit for us.”