Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o speaks at a news conference Saturday during the 2013 NFL scouting combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. / Pat Lovell, USA TODAY Sports
INDIANAPOLIS -- Manti Te'o handled the biggest test of his NFL future with a defusing calm that one former league executive believes will help restore his battered image after an "embarrassing'' fake online girlfriend scandal.
The former Notre Dame linebacker, victimized by a catfishing scheme, stepped behind the podium at 2:15 p.m. ET Saturday when the entire scouting combine tilted toward the Heisman Trophy runner-up.
Te'o spent his 15-minute session before 200 news reporters and 35 television/video cameras answering questions with a polite directness. He never appeared rattled and didn't snap when one reporter sarcastically asked if he was dating anyone in real life.
You better believe all 32 teams were either watching or will watch at some point the session that was televised live by the NFL Network.
"I thought he did a great job of being very articulate, poised and not deferring questions,'' former St. Louis Rams vice president of player personnel Tony Softli told USA TODAY Sports after watching Te'o's session. "He was pretty sincere.
"You can tell the kid's intelligent. I'm still having a hard time with the issue. It's a strange situation being that naive. And he's very immature socially. But he handled himself a lot better than I thought he would.''
Former Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian told USA TODAY Sports he believes the only thing Te'o was guilty of was being somewhat naive.
"I don't know how you can be guilty of being a nice person,'' said Polian, an ESPN analyst.
"Everything (Notre Dame athletics director) Jack Swarbrick said has been true and it's been corroborated by Manti. â?¦ The clear verdict as all the evidence showed is that Manti was guilty of nothing. He was the victim of a hoax."
Polian still has questions, about football: "What I would want to know as a GM is, 'Tell me about the (Bowl Championship Series title) Alabama game? This is the outlier really in your whole career. How come you didn't play like Manti Te'o in that game?' ''
Te'o disappeared in Alabama 42-14 beating of Notre Dame.
But Te'o did not fall back on the excuse of being distracted, saying, "I played hard and so did my team. But Alabama had a great game plan, and so did we. They just executed better than we did.''
Te'o scored points with his candor.
"It's definitely embarrassing,'' Te'o said about the catfishing hoax. "You walk into a grocery store and you get people giving you double takes and staring at you. It's definitely embarrassing. It's part of the process and it's only going to make you stronger.
"If I was still embarrassed, I wouldn't be standing in front of you.''
Deadspin revealed Jan. 16 that Te'o's girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, whom he previously said died within hours of his grandmother in September, never existed. He learned the same day in a phone call that the hoax was perpetrated by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.
Te'o said the truly heartbreaking part was hearing how reporters and photographers were camped out on the family's front lawn in his native Oahu, Hawaii, in the scandal's aftermath.
"The toughest moment was a phone call that I got from my sister when she told me that they had to sneak my own family into their home because there were people parked out in the yard,'' Te'o said. "That had to be the hardest part for me. I have a problem with it when I can't do something about it, when I can't help. Knowing that my family was in that situation because of the actions I made was definitely the hardest moment."
Maybe the only thing Te'o could have done better was utilize humor to poke fun at himself.
The closest he came was his first reaction to the media swarm.
"Wow! That's a lot of cameras,'' he said, smiling. "It's been crazy. I've been in front of a few cameras. Never as many as this.''
Te'o has met with two teams, the Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers, with 18 others on his docket for 15-minute interviews, including the Carolina Panthers.
"I haven't ever seen anything like this before at the combine,'' Panthers coach Ron Rivera told USA TODAY Sports. "Because of social media, it's created a lot of things we really didn't know about in the past.
"Something crazy happened and somehow he was a part of it by accident. He was an unwilling, accidental participant.
"At the end of the day, it's about whether he can play football.''
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