INDIANAPOLIS -- There are more than 300 players at the NFL Scouting Combine this week, but the only one who truly mattered Saturday was the Hawaiian guy with the fake dead girlfriend.
The Manti Te’o “catfishing” saga was the biggest sports story of the new year. And for the first time since it broke, Te’o — the Heisman Trophy runner-up and likely first-round draft pick — addressed the matter in a general news conference setting here Saturday.
“It’s definitely embarrassing,” Te’o told the several hundred reporters who surrounded his podium during the 15-minute question-and-answer session.
“You’re walking through the grocery store and you’re getting people staring at you, it’s definitely embarrassing,” Te’o added. “I guess it’s part of the process, part of the journey, but it’s something that’s going to make me stronger.”
Te’o has been a national fascination — and punch line — since it was revealed in mid-January that his dead girlfriend never existed.
Te’o claims he believed he was involved in an online relationship with Lennay Kekua, who he was told had died of leukemia in September 2012.
Her “death” came just hours after the actual passing of his grandmother, a dual tragedy that fueled Te’o’s All-American campaign and became the dominant narrative of Notre Dame’s undefeated regular season.
But as Deadspin first reported last month, Kekua wasn’t real, the intricate creation of acquaintance Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Te’o claims he wasn’t in on the hoax and only learned of it late in the season. But that hasn’t stopped many from speculating the bizarre story might chip away at the prospect’s credibility and, in turn, his draft status.
“Somebody that’s not truthful, that’s big, to me,” said Niners coach Jim Harbaugh, not speaking specifically of Te’o. “I’m a big fan of the Judge Judy show.
“And when you lie in Judge Judy’s courtroom, it’s over. Your credibility is completely lost. You have no chance of winning that case.”
Te’o is trying his best to prove Harbaugh wrong.
He’s set to meet with 20 teams this weekend and said everyone he has talked to thus far has asked him about the situation.
“They want to hear it from me,” said Te’o, who added that he doesn’t fear the controversy will hurt his stock. “I just tell them basically what happened.”
If he is anywhere near as convincing in private as he was publicly, that should be enough, argues Pat Kirwan, a former NFL executive who now hosts a show on Sirius NFL Radio.
“I think Te’o handled things beautifully in there,” Kirwan said. “I actually felt he was relaxed, to the point he was at peace with it. Secondly, no question came at him that he wasn’t able to handle.
“It helps me think that in the big, pressure moment of the game, he’s got that internal character to him.”
Te’o was most effective when discussing the impact the scandal — which was international news — had on those closest to him.
“The toughest moment was a phone call I got from my sister, when she told me they had to sneak my own family in their home because there were people parked out in the yard,” Te’o said. “That had to be the hardest part.”
• Kirwan said of the three top-tier receivers expected to hit the free agent market — Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings and Dwayne Bowe — Jennings is the best fit for the Dolphins.
“The propaganda out there right now is it’s going to be Mike Wallace,” Kirwan said. “I love Mike. But Greg Jennings to me has a lot of things going for him that I like.
“No. 1, the system. How he handles himself. How mature he is. This is not a derogatory thing in comparison to Mike. I just know what I’m getting in Greg, and so does that coach.”
• The Dolphins famously passed on FIU receiver T.Y. Hilton in favor of Michael Egnew last year, and haven’t shown much interest yet in Hilton’s old teammate Tourek Williams. The draft-eligible defensive end/outside linebacker said he has spoken to roughly 10 teams this week, but the Dolphins weren’t one of them.
• Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said Saturday that the best offensive lineman he ever went against in college, whether in practice or a game, was former Gator and current Dolphins center Mike Pouncey.