The controversial Notre Dame linebacker’s press conference was the main event of this year’s combine, as he answered questions from the assembled media for the first time since the “catfishing” hoax about his fake dead girlfriend became nationwide news last month.
“There’s a lot of cameras,” Te’o said with laugh as he stepped in front of a microphone. “It’s pretty crazy.”
Te’o took 34 questions during the 15-minute press conference, answering everything that was asked of him. He tried to shift the focus back to football, but spent the bulk of the time discussing his past, what he learned from the scandal and how he could have handled things differently.
“I understand that people have questions but I think I’ve answered everything I could, and for me I’d really like to talk about football,” Te’o said. “The incident, I said all I needed to say about that. How I’m handling it going forward is doing what I’m doing right now – focusing on the moment and focusing on football.”
Te’o’s story is that he was duped by a man into falling for a fake girlfriend in an online relationship. Te’o never actually met face-to-face with the woman, Lennay Kekua, who he believed he was dating. They communicated exclusively online and over the telephone.
The relationship attracted the headlines because Te’o said that the woman died of leukemia in September, just four days before Notre Dame played Michigan State on national TV. Te’o played in the game and delivered a dominating performance, registering 12 tackles, two pass breakups, a fumble recovery and sack. From that point on, the story of Kekua’s death stuck with Te’o and he went on to be the Heisman runner-up.
Then in January – after Notre Dame’s 42-14 loss to Alabama in the national championship – Deadspin broke the story that Kekua didn’t actually exist and that the relationship was a hoax from the start.
Te’o found out the truth in December before the national championship, but he decided to carry on the narrative about his girlfriend throughout the buildup to the title game. He didn’t come clean until a few weeks later, after the Deadspin story had already broke, which led some to believe that Te’o was complacent with the hoax. Te’o has denied any involvement in the scandal.
“People doubt me because I took a while to come out,” he said. “I think from our point of view, we wanted to let everything come out first, and then have my side come out. The way that we did it I felt worked best for me and I’m just very grateful for those who helped me to get through that time because I think it went over as smoothly as it could.”
Te’o admitted that the entire incident took a toll on him and his family.
“I could have done some things different. Obviously I could have done a lot of things different to avoid all this stuff,” he said.
“It’s definitely embarrassing. You walk through the grocery store and you kind of give people double takes to see if they’re staring at you. It’s definitely embarrassing. It’s I guess part of the process, it’s part of the journey. It’s only going to make me strong and it definitely has.”
The hoax, along with a poor performance in the national championship, has created some questions about Te’o’s draft stock. He was once regarded as one of the top players in the draft – potentially the No. 1 overall pick – but he’s fallen recently in a number of mock drafts.
Teams have questions about his character, and T’eo said that every team he’s met with has asked him to tell his side of story.
“They all asked me about it,” he said. “They want to hear it from me, and I just tell them basically what happened.”
“They want to be able to trust their player. You don’t want to invest in somebody who you can’t trust. With everybody here, they’re just trying to get to know you. They’re trying to get to know you as a person and as a football player, and I understand where they’re coming from.”
The Ravens have been one team linked to Te’o throughout the pre-draft process. A number of mock drafts have him falling to the Ravens with pick No. 32, putting him in position to step in for recently-retired linebacker
“If I get to go to Baltimore, it will definitely be some big shoes to fill, but an opportunity that I would be honored to have,” Te’o said. “I’ve grown up watching Ray Lewis. Just watching his intensity, his passion for the game, his work ethic, everything in a linebacker that you want to be is in Ray Lewis, from leadership qualities, all of that. He’ll be definitely missed in Baltimore and in the NFL as a whole.”
As Saturday’s press conference came to a close, Te’o thanked his friends and family who have helped him throughout this process. He said he’s learned he has to keep his circle small, and be careful about whom he trusts.
And most of all, he stressed that from here on out, his focus is football.
“Whatever team I go to, I’m just going to be me and want to work hard and just do my best to help the team win,” he said. “Just hopefully after this, I answered the things that I needed to answer, and we can move on with football.”