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Updated: February 23rd, 2013 2:24pm
Pelissero: Manti Te'o passes one test, but moving on won't be simple

Pelissero: Manti Te'o passes one test, but moving on won't be simple

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Manti Te'o had answered 36 questions on Saturday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium when his time at Podium C was up.

He stayed behind the microphone for a few more moments to thank the media, his parents, his family, his friends, the University of Notre Dame and everyone else who supports him.

"I couldn't do it without all of you," Te'o said in the same soft, even tone he'd used throughout the roughly 15-minute media conference. "Just hopefully, after this, I've answered the things I need to answer and we can move on with football."

If only it could be that simple.

As much as NFL teams might want to separate Manti Te'o the Heisman Trophy runner-up from Manti Te'o the 'Catfished' laughingstock, the complete picture will remain under heavy scrutiny through April's draft.

The fact his media session here may have been the most heavily attended in the history of the NFL scouting combine confirmed the fascination is unlikely to subside anytime soon.

"Good football player, but it's going to be a circus wherever he goes," a high-ranking AFC personnel man said. "There's no question. He's going to be the butt of jokes the rest of his career."

It can be hard enough being a highly publicized player in the NFL. Play up to expectations, and the locker room will love you. Play below expectations, and the locker room will quickly tire of the attention.

Te'o will have more eyeballs on him and more to prove than anyone, just months after his story and his role in Notre Dame's surge to the national championship game had turned him into an into an inspirational magazine cover boy and seemingly a first-round lock.

Then, Deadspin reported on Jan. 16 that Lennay Kekua never met Te'o, never died of leukemia, never even existed, and Te'o ended up on the couches of Katie Couric and Dr. Phil to try to explain how he was duped as NFL executives looked on.

"We haven't done our research, so I don't know what percentage (the hoax is) going to play. It's could be, we're fine with it, what happened, or it' s like, 'Yeesh. I don't know,'" Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said this week.

"... We're going to spend a lot of time with him because he's a very talented prospect. People have asked why he didn't play so good in the Alabama (national title) game. I don't know the answer to that, but I'm sure there will be a lot of questions thrown his way. But from the view of the overall big picture, he is a very talented football player."

Te'o handled himself well in Saturday's media conference and was asked only two questions about his brutal performance against Alabama, even though that raised questions that probably are more important in many personnel rooms than a fake Twitter girlfriend.

He denied the revelation Kekua was a hoax -- unknown to the rest of the world until eight days after the game -- was a distraction during his preparation.

"That's 'cause I didn't (play well). That's all on me," Te'o said. "I played hard, and so did my team. But Alabama had a great game plan and so did we. It's just they executed better than we did."

He said he has gone through only two formal interviews here, with Green Bay and Houston, and has 18 more scheduled. The Vikings were expected to interview him on Saturday night.

"They wanted to hear from me what the truth was," Te'o said. "They haven't really said anything about it affecting me. I think we just talked for 30 seconds (about the scandal), and the next 14 minutes was all plays and just getting down to business."

Twenty questions were connected to the scandal one way or another. Te'o answered everything except a question comparing his situation to players who have failed drug tests or arrests in their backgrounds.

• On the facts of the Catfishing' scandal: "I cared for somebody. That's what I was taught to do since I was young. If someone needs help, you help them out. Unfortunately, it didn't end up the way I thought it would."

• On why it took so long for him to explain his side: "It was just a whirlwind of stuff for me. Being a ... 21-year-old at that time, just trying to get your thoughts right. Everything's just kind of chaos.

• On media coverage of the situation: "It got overwhelming at times. I think the hardest part ... was to see not necessarily my first name, but my last name. Everybody here, you treasure your last name. That's what you hold dear. That's something that, when you pass on, the only thing that stays ... here is your last name. So, to see my last name everywhere and to know that I represented my family and my cousins and everything."

• On his selling point to teams: "I think what I bring to the table is a lot of heart, a lot of energy and somebody who works hard. Somebody who hates to lose. I've always said I hate losing more than I love to win. The reason why I love to win is I don't have to go through (losing). For teams, I just always tell them you'll get somebody who's humble, works hard, doesn't say much and do everything it takes to win."

• On if he's over the embarrassment: "Oh, definitely. I definitely have gotten. Obviously, I'm here. If I were still embarrassed, I wouldn't be standing here."

• On whether teams have concerns about him not being forthright about the situation: "They want to be able to trust their player. You don't want to invest in somebody they can't trust. With everybody here, they're just trying to get to know you and they're trying to get to know you as a person and as a football player. I understand where they're coming from."

• On not taking legal action against alleged hoaxer Roniah Tuiasosopo: "That's the worst thing about it. Both families are going through chaos. There was not only people camped outside my house. They were camped outside his house. I went through what I went through, and he went through his own sort of stuff. So, I think that's the worst thing for me to do. ... If you forgive, you'll get the majority of blessings. I always try to forgive, and it's definitely benefited me."

• On whether he's dating anyone now in real life: "No, not right now."

Reporters actually rushed to get seats late Saturday morning after NFL Network erroneously reported Te'o would be at the podium in an hour. A few reporters refused to move all the way until 2:15 p.m., when Te'o finally entered the room through a back door.

Wherever he ends up, his first local media conference figures to be more of the same. His every move will be chronicled at least through the season opener in a manner rarely afforded non-quarterbacks -- attention some veteran players might resent.

The caveat the AFC personnel man added to his assessment was Te'o could get a grace period in a certain type of locker room -- specifically, one that includes some of his old Notre Dame teammates to embrace him and spread the word he's for real, even if his girlfriend wasn't.

To that end, it's worth noting the Vikings have five Notre Dame alumni, including three (Kyle Rudolph, Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton) who played with Te'o at Notre Dame. During the Vikings' bye week, Smith went back to South Bend, Ind., and stayed on Te'o's couch.

The Vikings need to upgrade the middle linebacker spot, too, and there's at least a chance he'll be on the board when they pick at No. 23, depending in part on how he works out and interviews.

"Once he shows people that he can play, that he's not hype, then all that stuff, people can tell you it's time to move on," the personnel man said. "If he comes in and doesn't play up to his ability or he's not as good as they envision him being, then it will be interesting."

That's every young player in the NFL, of course, but Manti Te'o isn't just another player. The situation is unprecedented, even in a modern NFL where teams spend millions digging into the backgrounds of hundreds of college players every year.

When it comes to Te'o, the answers may have begun to materialize here, but the discussion about him figures to get more time in draft rooms than almost anyone as teams finalize their boards in April.

"To be honest with you, I don't understand (some of it)," Spielman said. "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."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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