By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) At least out on the football field, the hits stop when the whistle blows. But in the case of Manti Te’o, they just seem to keep piling up.
And up, and up.
This morning, the New York Daily News reported “the bizarre Manti Te’o fake girlfriend frenzy reached a new low – with a high pitched confession.” According to the attorney of hoax mastermind Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, it was the scammer himself who was on the other end of the many phone calls with the Notre Dame star, using a falsetto voice to pose as Teo’s supposed girlfriend “Lennay Kekua.”
Te’o “thought it was a female he was talking with,” lawyer Milton Grimes told the Daily News. “It was Ronaiah as Lennay.”
Talk about your unnecessary roughness.
As embarrassing as this episode is – and will surely continue to be – for Te’o, it doesn’t change the fact that the 6-foot-2, 255-pound linebacker remains an elite football talent. Once projected by many draft analysts as a Top 10 pick, the Heisman Trophy runner-up is still headed to the NFL even after his lackluster BCS championship performance and the fallout from this scandal.
The pressing issue surrounding Te’o today is that his personal situation is about as complex as they come and it has transformed him from a simple college kid into a guy with more baggage than O’Hare Airport. All of which begs the question, which NFL franchise has a culture that would be best suited to deal with Te’o and all his drama – imagined, or otherwise?
Right now, it appears that NFL executive still don’t know what to make of Te’o and the confusing “catfishing” scandal he’s embroiled in. SI.com last week quoted an anonymous NFL executive as saying, “I can’t make a judgment at this point. No. 1, it’s a bizarre set of circumstances. When something so bizarre happens, I don’t rush to judgment because I don’t know the details. I’ve got to find out what the hell happened. It’s something a lot of investigation will be needed on.”
Meanwhile, Denver Broncos executive vice president John Elway said to USA Today about Te’o, “It’s a little bit mind-boggling to think what did happen, what he did know. He’s going to get asked about it probably 32 times at the Combine. Everyone is going to ask him about it. It’s hard for us to understand – why he wouldn’t know?”
Playing off Elway’s question, USA Today reporter Mike Garafolo wrote, “Until they can begin to find out, it’s all guesswork as to how Te’o’s draft stock will be affected.”
What isn’t guesswork is the fact that Te’o will face a rough go in the NFL. As anyone who has ever sat courtside at an NBA game or found themselves out in the bleachers at Wrigley Field can certainly attest, fans can be brutal on pro athletes. And with the crazy circumstances surrounding Te’o’s situation, it’s a given that he’s going to hear more taunts and insults than most professional athletes.
But I don’t think the fans are even the biggest of Te’o’s potential concerns. I would be more worried about the taunts and insults that he might hear in the locker room from his own teammates.
In the NFL, rookies are the well-known punching bags of veteran players, particularly during training camp. With Te’o’s situation ripe for jokes, it’s easy to imagine his fellow players picking on him long after camp breaks. Truth is, if ever a rookie needed someone to have his back in a locker room, Te’o is probably it.
New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones are among those who have spoken positively about Te’o of late, calling him a “good football player” and someone who from afar “looks very genuine.” Having the support of a team’s top front-office guys is good, but Te’o is going to also need someone who supports him in the trenches. It would be even better, if he was teammates with someone who understood him on some level.
So, maybe he’d be fortunate to end up with the Washington Redskins, who reportedly had four players duped in December by someone using a fake female online identity. Or maybe his best fit might with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where a team leaders is safety Troy Polamalu, a Samoan like Te’o. Or perhaps he’d fit in with the Patriots, who have stable management – and, well, have been known to shield their own.
Wherever Te’o does land, though, he’s going to need someone willing to help him stay on his feet as he navigates the NFL’s rocky terrain, rather than someone who’s ready to pull the rug out from beneath him once again.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.