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Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o answers a question during a news conference at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.

Michael Conroy, Associated Press

Te'o doesn't duck NFL media blitz

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER
  • Star Tribune
  • February 23, 2013 - 11:19 PM

 

INDIANAPOLIS - The circus organs had finally stopped piping and the media tidal wave had receded.

An hour had passed Saturday since Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o walked off Podium C at the NFL scouting combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. And now Gil Brandt stood in a concourse trying to summarize the weekend's most anticipated interview.

Te'o had been under the spotlight for 14 minutes and 36 seconds, fielding 34 questions and trying to provide an honest if totally abbreviated update on his oh-so-peculiar 2013.

Brandt, once the vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys and now a senior analyst for the NFL's website, shrugged and gave a preliminary nod of approval.

"Handled himself incredibly well," Brandt said.

Pointed questions were fired Te'o's way about the now-infamous Lennay Kekua fake girlfriend hoax. Yet he navigated the session with grace.

His answers were direct. His sentiments seemed sincere.

"Once you do this head on," Brandt said, "hopefully you get it behind you and it's history. And before long, this can be about him as a football player again."

• • •

A night earlier, as hundreds of combine participants were being fed at the nearby Crowne Plaza, Brandt made a point to seek out Te'o. He wanted to measure the linebacker's anxiety, to get a feel for his mindset, to offer a nuggets of advice.

Brandt sat with Te'o as he ate and told him it would be in his best interest to attack all the athletic testing and drills at the combine without reservation. Te'o said he planned to.

Brandt advised Te'o not to dodge the media.

Te'o never intended to.

"I'm like everybody else," Brandt said. "I want to know what the kid is made of. And I've been really impressed. He has great communication skills. He interacts so well."

So when it finally came time for Te'o to march into the teeth of an unprecedented combine media blitz, he climbed the podium steps and looked out at a swarm unlike any he'd seen.

"Pretty crazy," he said. "I've been in front of a few cameras. But never as many as this."

Not only had all 32 chairs set up in front of the podium been full for some time, but 43 TV cameras had also jockeyed for position, with another eye-opening overflow of reporters lined eight and nine bodies deep across the room, some climbing on top of chairs to get a view.

By most accounts, the interest dwarfed even that of Tim Tebow's 2010 appearance here.

Te'o was asked why he had been slow in speaking up after the story broke on the website Deadspin on Jan. 16 with bizarre revelations that his late girlfriend had not only never died of leukemia but wasn't a girl at all -- rather a social media creation by hoax perpetrator Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.

"It was just a whirlwind of stuff," Te'o explained. "For me, a 22-year-old, a 21-year-old at that time, you're just trying to get your thoughts right. Everything's kind of chaos for a little bit. So you let that chaos die down and wait until everybody's willing to listen."

For the past 5 1/2 weeks, Te'o admitted, he has found himself fighting past humiliation.

"You're walking through a grocery store," he said, "and you kind of give people double-takes to see if they're staring at you. It's definitely embarrassing."

• • •

Over 15 minutes, the linebacker's mellow deportment seemed to calm the fascination in his plight.

Consider that a Te'o victory, as minor as it may be. Still, the media crush provides another variable for NFL general managers to consider.

Even if teams can find comfort that Te'o has been truthful about the hoax, even if they're sold he can be a difference-maker, they will have to wonder whether the media swarm Te'o will attract will become a nuisance.

It's not only the linebacker who will have to get used to that crush. Fifty-two other teammates will have to deal with its annoyances. And ask the Jets if there was any fatigue related to the media swarm that Tebow's arrival brought last season.

The Vikings will be one of those teams doing an exhaustive evaluation on Te'o. With the draft's 23rd pick and needs at middle linebacker, GM Rick Spielman will measure his Te'o intrigue across the board.

Can the kid play? Can he fit within the defensive scheme? Will he be a match for the brand of tough, disciplined and unselfish players head coach Leslie Frazier wants?

Those assessments should be fairly easy to complete.

Then, the Vikings will dig deeper into Te'o's background and the complex scandal that engulfed him, creating layers of confusion that still haven't been cleared up.

Said Spielman: "We know some things that have not been reported in the media. I'll say that."

• • •

In a new phase of this college-to-NFL transition, Te'o not only answered reporters' questions Saturday, he had private 15-minute interviews scheduled with 20 teams this weekend.

The linebacker will also try to provide additional answers Monday when he runs the 40-yard dash and goes through athletic testing.

And when those formalities are finished, the far more extensive interactions will ramp up.

The Vikings, for one, seem likely to schedule Te'o for a Winter Park visit. And they will look forward to compiling results of the psychological testing they will put Te'o through, an exercise they hope can provide a reliable profile of who he is.

"There are a lot of different areas we really hone in on and try to look at," Spielman said. "Coachability. Social maturity. Self-esteem. Mental quickness."

On Thursday, before the Vikings had their chance to meet with Te'o, Spielman had no gut feeling for how his feelings might change.

"I don't know," Spielman said. "Because I haven't talked to him. ... So I don't know what percentage [the hoax stuff] is going to play. It could be, we're fine with what happened. Or maybe it's like, 'Yeesh. I don't know.'

"To be honest with you, I don't understand [some of it]. But I'm not a social media savvy guy. I ask my kids sometimes, 'Can you actually have a girlfriend online? How does that work?' I'm pretty naive when it comes to that. But honestly, I can't answer that question until we get in front and speak with him. I'm sure we'll have numerous conversations beyond the combine."

As well as Te'o handled Saturday, he best remain prepared. The demands of the pre-draft process are far from behind him.

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