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With hoax revealed, many questions remain about Te'o

Manti Te'o will likely see his NFL Draft stock plummet in the wake of his fake girlfriend scandal.

Manti Te'o will likely see his NFL Draft stock plummet in the wake of his fake girlfriend scandal.

Here's the real story: Manti Te'o's stock in the NFL draft already was sinking.

Blame his performance in the BCS title game, not any hoax or conspiracy, for that.

Still, the uncertainty surrounding Notre Dame's All-American linebacker could further hurt his draft stock, NFL draft consultant Gil Brandt said.

Brandt called the story "something I have never witnessed" in his half-century in pro football.

"I think some teams will say it isn't worth the problem" to draft Te'o, said Brandt, who has the linebacker rated 19th overall in the first round.

The former Dallas Cowboys general manager added Thursday that Te'o's stock had plummeted after a poor performance in the BCS championship game.

"I don't think anybody considered him to be a top-five pick before all this happened," Brandt said. "In that game against Alabama, this was like a guy who was the best shooter in the world in basketball and here comes a game and he can't even hit the backboard. His play in that game was absolutely horrible. He missed on run blitzes; guys ran over him ..."

Te'o would hardly be the first player to see his draft stock sink because of off-field issues. Last year, North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins fell to the second round after multiple run-ins with the law related to marijuana got him dismissed from Florida.

Warren Sapp in 1995 and Randy Moss in 1998 slid because of character concerns; both are now considered potential Hall of Famers.

Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery said "it's no different what the red flags are."

"You've got to identify them," he said. "You've got to research it and then you decide what impact that has on the total person in terms of his ability to play football and to manage his life."

Oakland Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie agreed.

"It makes you go and get all the answers, cross your Ts and dot your Is and make sure," he said. "With any player, you have to make sure what you're getting from a character standpoint other than his ability, his talents. Try to get to know the guy. So, yes, it will weigh in heavily."

David Schwab, a senior executive at sports management firm Octagon, considered Te'o perhaps the most marketable player coming into this year's draft. As the face of a Notre Dame team that returned to national relevance, the Heisman Trophy runner-up had the name recognition of few college stars.

"Compassionate" and "heartwarming" were some of the adjectives Schwab would have used to describe his image.

Now, that persona will depend on the details that emerge about the story of a girlfriend who didn't exist.

"If he truly had nothing to do with it, I think the long-term damage is zero," said Schwab, who specializes in matching companies to celebrities.

In the short term, it's unlikely to see Te'o promoting any products, because a public appearance would turn into an impromptu news conference about the hoax. If uncertainty lingers about exactly what happened, Schwab said, many companies may hesitate to sign him.

But even if Te'o is implicated in the hoax, he could still eventually turn into a sponsor's dream if he blossoms as an NFL star.

"If you perform on the field, you quickly become marketable," Schwab said.

Look no further than Ray Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens linebacker who was charged with murder in 2000. The charges were dropped after Lewis agreed to testify against two other men and he subsequently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice. This week he's a beloved figure heading into the AFC championship with retirement looming.

Teams may be less likely to take a risk on Te'o in the draft if they don't believe he can become a dominant player.

Brandt noted how the inside linebacker position doesn't carry as much importance in the NFL as it once did. In the last 10 years, only four inside linebackers were taken in the first round, although one of them was perennial All-Pro Patrick Willis of San Francisco.

"I think it would be different if it was a quarterback who would change the game," he said. "But linebackers are a piece to the puzzle; they don't solve the puzzle. Other than Ray Lewis, I don't know of any linebacker you say, 'We've got to have this guy.'

"(Inside) linebackers are not as important as they used to be. We're down to one or two first-round linebackers now."

Brandt wondered how Te'o could be so effective during the season, including seven interceptions — "unheard of, like hitting .450 in baseball" — and then so unproductive in the championship game.

"Between now and 97 days from now when the draft comes, there'll be a lot of people investigating just what took place," he said.


TE'O MENTIONED 'GIRLFRIEND' TWICE IN MEDIA REPORTS DAYS AFTER HE LEARNED OF HOAX:

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Not once but twice after he supposedly discovered his online girlfriend of three years never even existed, Notre Dame All-American linebacker Manti Te'o perpetuated the heartbreaking story about her death.

An Associated Press review of news coverage found that the Heisman Trophy runner-up talked about his doomed love in a Web interview on Dec. 8 and again in a newspaper interview published Dec. 10. He and the university said Wednesday that he learned on Dec. 6 that it was all a hoax, that not only wasn't she dead, she wasn't real.

On Thursday, a day after Te'o's inspiring, playing-through-heartache story was exposed as a bizarre lie, Te'o and Notre Dame faced questions from sports writers and fans about whether he really was duped, as he claimed, or whether he and the university were complicit in the hoax and misled the public, perhaps to improve his chances of winning the Heisman.

Yahoo sports columnist Dan Wetzel said the case has "left everyone wondering whether this was really the case of a naïve football player done wrong by friends or a fabrication that has yet to play to its conclusion."

Gregg Doyel, national columnist for CBSSports.com, was more direct.

"Nothing about this story has been comprehensible, or logical, and that extends to what happens next," he wrote. "I cannot comprehend Manti Te'o saying anything that could make me believe he was a victim."

On Wednesday, Te'o and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the player was drawn into a virtual romance with a woman who used the phony name Lennay Kekua, and was fooled into believing she died of leukemia in September. They said his only contact with the woman was via the Internet and telephone.

Te'o also lost his grandmother — for real — the same day his girlfriend supposedly died, and his role in leading Notre Dame to its best season in decades endeared him to fans and put him at the center of college football's biggest feel-good story of the year.

Relying on information provided by Te'o's family members, the South Bend Tribune reported in October that Te'o and Kekua first met, in person, in 2009, and that the two had also gotten together in Hawaii, where Te'o grew up.

Sports Illustrated posted a previously unpublished transcript of a one-on-one interview with Te'o from Sept. 23. In it, he goes into great detail about his relationship with Kekua and her physical ailments. He also mentioned meeting her for the first time after a game in California.

"We met just, ummmm, just she knew my cousin. And kind of saw me there so. Just kind of regular," he told SI.

Among the outstanding questions Thursday: Why didn't Te'o ever clarify the nature of his relationship as the story took on a life of its own?

Te'o's agent, Tom Condon, said the athlete had no plans to make any public statements Thursday in Bradenton, Fla., where he has been training with other NFL hopefuls at the IMG Academy.

Notre Dame said Te'o found out that Kekua was not a real person through a phone call he received at an awards ceremony in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 6. He told Notre Dame coaches about the situation on Dec. 26.

The AP's media review turned up two instances during that gap when the football star mentioned Kekua in public.

Te'o was in New York for the Heisman presentation on Dec. 8 and, during an interview before the ceremony that ran on the WSBT.com, the website for a South Bend TV station, Te'o said: "I mean, I don't like cancer at all. I lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer. So I've really tried to go to children's hospitals and see, you know, children."

In a column that first ran in The Los Angeles Times, on Dec. 10, Te'o recounted why he played a few days after he found out Kekua died in September, and the day she was supposedly buried.

"She made me promise, when it happened, that I would stay and play," he said on Dec. 9 while attending a ceremony in Newport Beach, Calif., for the Lott Impact Awards.

On Wednesday, when Deadspin.com broke the story, Swarbrick said Notre Dame did not go public with its findings sooner because it expected the Te'o family to come forward first.

Asked if the NCAA was monitoring the Te'o story for possible rules violations, NCAA President Mark Emmert said:

"We don't know anything more than you do," he told reporters at the organization's convention in Dallas. "We're learning about this through the stories just the same as you are. But we have to wait and see what really transpired there. It's obviously (a) very disturbing story and it's hard to tell where the facts lie at this point.

"But Notre Dame is obviously looking into it and there will be a lot more to come forward. Right now, it just looks ... well, we don't know what the facts are, so I shouldn't comment beyond that."

Reporters were turned away at the main gate of IMG's sprawling, secure complex. Te'o remained on the grounds, said a person familiar with situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because neither Te'o nor IMG authorized the release of the information.

"This whole thing is so nutsy that I believe it only could have happened at Notre Dame, where mythology trumps common sense on a daily basis. ... Given the choice between reality and fiction, Notre Dame always will choose fiction," sports writer Rick Telander said in the Chicago Sun-Times.

"Which brings me to what I believe is the real reason Te'o and apparently his father, at least went along with this scheme: the Heisman Trophy.

Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass blasted both Te'o and Notre Dame.

"When your girlfriend dying of leukemia after suffering a car crash tells you she loves you, even if it might help you win the Heisman Trophy, you check it out," he said.

He said the university's failure to call a news conference and go public sooner means "Notre Dame is complicit in the lie."

"The school fell in love with the Te'o girlfriend myth," he wrote.