NFL prospect and Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o talks with USA Today Sports as he works out at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., in preparation for this year's NFL Combine. / Chip J Litherland for USA TODAY
INDIANAPOLIS â?? Manti Te'o is telling teams "the facts" at the NFL scouting combine when asked about the embarrassing catfishing scandal after it was revealed last month that his girlfriend, whom he said last fall had died, never existed.
"I cared from somebody, and that's what I was taught to do ever since I was young," Te'o said Saturday. "Unfortunately, it didn't end up the way I thought it would."
Te'o has met formally with two teams in Indianapolis, the Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers, and has meetings scheduled with 18 others. He expects all to ask him, in some fashion, about why he didn't know his girlfriend was fake, and why he lied about the relationship even after discovering the hoax.
"They want to hear it from me," Te'o said.
So did the assembled NFL news media.
Te'o was greeted in the media center by at least 200 reporters â?? perhaps the largest throng ever at the NFL combine.
The crowd began to assemble hours earlier, when the NFL Network â?? which provides exclusive live television coverage â?? predicted the news conference would happen shortly after noon ET. In reality, the Te'o circus didn't start until 2:15 p.m.
"Wow, that's a lot of cameras," Te'o said as he stepped behind the podium to begin his first news conference since the hoax was revealed last month.
Te'o said he hasn't heard from teams that the scandal will affect his draft status and that he has received as many questions about football as he has about his major social media mishap.
There are other significant questions for the Heisman Trophy runner-up to answer, from how fast he will run his 40-yard dash to how he will explain his disappointing showing in Notre Dame's loss to Alabama in the Bowl Championship Series title game.
"After the season my team and I had, there were a lot of people in our corner. And then when Jan. 16 happened, there was a lot of people in the other corner," Te'o said. "I just have to appreciate the people I have that are good to me. It was just make sure you always try to turn a negative thing into a positive."
Te'o was composed throughout the nearly 15-minute news conference, only becoming emotional as he discussed the toll the scandal took on his family. He recalled a phone call from his sister in which she described having to sneak their parents into their house to avoid a horde of reporters and cameras camped out on their lawn.
"Something that I've always had a problem with is when I can't do something about it and when I can't help," Te'o said. "To know my family was in the situation because of the actions I committed was definitely the hardest part for me."
Te'o has regrets, he said, about how he handled the public revelation that Lennay Kekua was a hoax, and how he could have done things differently to "avoid all this." He has learned through the process, though, to be more empathetic and honest.
Te'o said the public response and intense fascination with his story has at times been overwhelming. At times it has been difficult to go out in public because, he said, even when he goes to the grocery store, it has felt like strangers were staring. It was embarrassing, he said, though he added that if he was still embarrassed, he wouldn't have been facing hundreds of reporters here.
"It's been a hard but tremendous ride. Hopefully after this I've answered the things I needed to answer and we can move on with football," Te'o said.
Formal interviews for defensive players like Te'o continue Sunday night, and most teams plans to meet with Te'o at some point here in Indianapolis, in an official 15-minute interview or in passing, informal conversations. Te'o also will go through mental evaluations in Indianapolis like all prospects, with the Wonderlic and new Player Assessment Tool aptitude tests, though those results won't be immediately available to teams.
A member of football operations from an NFC North team said his club is going to save its in-depth interview of Te'o for an official visit to the team facility later in the draft process. With a player and situation as unique as Te'o, 15 minutes in a crowded conference room isn't enough, he said.
Still, formal interviews in Indianapolis will provide the first chance for NFL teams to meet with Te'o since the catfishing scandal broke. Te'o pulled out of the Senior Bowl before the news broke â?? not uncommon for players who participate in a late bowl game â?? and has been training with other prospects at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Part of the program there includes coaching from former Olympic track star Lewis Johnson on how to handle the interview portion of the combine.
"I just want to talk to him. Personally, I don't get caught up in everything that is swirling around him," Denver Broncos executive vice president John Elway said. "I know him as a football player. He's a very good football player. He's going to have a successful career in the NFL. I'm looking forward to sitting down and talking to him."
Te'o, in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY Sports last week in Bradenton, said he plans to simply tell the truth to all questions asked of him here at the combine. For any player bringing collegiate off-field baggage, that's really what NFL teams want to see.
"Somebody that's not truthful, that's big, to me. I'm a big fan of the Judge Judy show. And when you lie in Judge Judy's courtroom, it's over," San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Your credibility is completely lost. You have no chance of winning that case. So I learned that from her. It's very powerful, and true. Because if somebody does lie to you, how can you ever trust anything they ever say after that? Ronald Reagan, another person of great wisdom and advice, 'Trust but we will verify.' "
Harbaugh followed up that comment by saying it didn't mean Te'o would be undraftable. Indeed, for every team, Te'o's explanation in the interviews will be just one part of the evaluation process.
"We put it all in the hopper and we come out with, 'Well, this is what this guy is, this is where we think he should be on the board. Would we take him if he's at a certain position for us?'" New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "It's like everybody else. His situation is no different than anybody else."
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