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INDIANAPOLIS -- He still catches awkward looks in public, and not because he played middle linebacker for America’s most recognizable college football team.
Because he fell for America’s most viral and most humiliating prank.
“Oh, definitely. For anybody to go through, it’s definitely embarrassing,” former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o candidly admitted Saturday at the podium of the NFL Scouting Combine. “When you’re walking through grocery stores and you’re kind of like giving people double-takes to see if they’re staring at you, it’s definitely embarrassing.
“I guess it’s part of the process, it’s part of the journey. You know it’s only going to make me stronger and it definitely has.”
The part of the process that pertains to football and his future NFL career, that’s ongoing this week at the Combine, where Te’o will work out, interview and hope to boost or stabilize his draft stock.
The part that involves the infamous catfish hoax in which he fell for a girlfriend who never existed and then publicly lied to avoid the embarrassment, Te’o hopes eventually fades as his side of the story comes out.
Speaking about the incident to an assemblance of media for the first time, Te’o answered every question from a crowd of more than 150 reporters during a 15-minute press conference.
He answered professionally and sincerely and with the anticipation that his next press conference is centered more on football than pretend girlfriends.
“For me, I’m just looking forward to getting straight to football,” he said. “I understand people have questions, but I’ve answered everything I could. For me I’d really like to talk about football.”
At the same time, Te’o acknowledged that future employers needed to hear him come forward with the truth, to explain how he became entangled in a must-see controversy and why he didn’t come clean immediately after he learned that he had become the victim of a cruel joke.
Te’o said he had already met with the Packers and Texans and would meet with 18 more teams before the Combine ends.
“Yeah, they want to be able to trust their player,” he said. “ You don’t want to invest in somebody you can’t trust. With everybody here, they’re just trying to get to know you, get to know you as a person and as a football player. I understand where they’re coming from.”
Te’o faced a smattering of questions relating to football but mostly responded to inquiries about the catfish incident.
What’s he telling teams? Does he live with regret? Is he taking legal action against hoax leader Ronaiah Tuiasosopo?
How does he explain his descent from the country’s most acclaimed defensive football player into a national punchline?
“Just [that] I care for somebody and that’s what I was taught to do,” he said. “Ever since I was young if somebody needs help you help them out. Unfortunately it didn’t end up the way I thought it would.”
Te’o reflected on the “whirlwind of stuff” that brought instant chaos into his high-profile life and lamented the scandal that brought so much media into his inner circle that his family once had to sneak into their own house to avoid a barrage of cameras and reporters.
But he defended his decision to stay silent until he was ready to fully discuss the hoax in full detail.
“From our point of view we wanted everything to come out first and then have my side come out,” he said. “The way we did I felt worked best for me. I’m very grateful for those who helped me to get through that time. I felt it went as smoothly as it could.”
Te’o never cracked throughout the press conference, never broke a sweat or tried to duck a pointed question. He admitted that the attention “got overwhelming at times” and tarnished his name.
“Everybody here, you treasure your last name,” he said. “That’s what you hold dear.”
Te’o thanked the media for giving him an opportunity to hear him out and offered a public message of gratitude to those who stayed in his corner, admitting that there were many people close to him that didn’t have his back.
Before he left, Te’o was asked what he would bring to an NFL team.
“I think what I bring to the table is a lot of heart, a lot of energy and somebody that works hard,” he said. “Somebody who hates to lose. I always say, ‘I hate losing more than I love to win.’
“The reason why I love to win is because I don’t have to go through that feeling of losing. It’s those times where I lose that feeling that will stick with me. For teams I tell them, ‘You’ll always get somebody who’s humble, works hard, doesn’t say much and will do everything it takes to win.’”