On Friday night, in Bradenton, Fla., ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap conducted a thorough interview with Heisman Trophy Award runner-up, Manti Te’o, regarding the details of the recent revelation of the “girlfriend hoax.”
With more than 300 questions asked over a two-and-a-half hour interview, Schaap followed up the off-camera sit-down by poring over the 15,000-plus word transcript in the wee hours of Saturday, eventually power-napping in a makeshift bed.
“I was in one of those swivel chairs with my feet up on another one for about 25 minutes after my 6:45 Good Morning America “hit” [satellite appearance],” said Schaap, shortly after arriving back in the metropolitan New York area Saturday night.
Schaap spoke with Te’o at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, where the Notre Dame star is preparing himself for the upcoming NFL Draft Combine.
In this Front Row Q&A, Schaap provides more details and answers some lingering questions that have circulated in the hours since Te’o’s first post-Deadspin story interview.
Since you got to Brandenton, what have your days been like?
It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind. We had the Lance Armstrong news. I was in Bristol late Wednesday night. The following morning, we got into Bradenton, I thought there was a possibility we were going to conduct Thursday night an interview with Manti Te’o. By the time I landed, I was told that was not a possibility. The interview was off, although I was always skeptical that was going to happen just because of the general difficulties that you have. Then the possibility arose that just something might happen on Friday [that Te’o would interview]. But I didn’t have 100 percent confirmation that we’d have the interview until I think it was after 3 o’clock on Friday.
When you got that information that you would have the interview, you’d already been working on questions by that point?
Oh yeah, I’d been working on questions, a team had been working on questions in Bristol, the producers I was working with were working on question lists, the producer I came down with, Willie Weinbaum, was working on a question list. Oh, and there was also the Mike & Mike show chipped in. Mike Greenberg and producer Liam Chapman had some suggestions. There was a lot of input about questions.
You get the preparation done. What are you thinking on your way over?
I’m really trying to master the topic the best I can in my head, to make sure I understand everything that I need to understand. There are logistical issues as well. . . There were no cameras in the room, but there was a still camera. . . . There was a lot of things going through your head, and it happened so suddenly, there wasn’t any time to get nervous. More than anything else, there was just this curiosity about what it was he was going to say. Often you go into this big “get” but there’s not a big mystery in the center of it. There was in this case. Like everyone else, I wanted to know what he was going to say, how he was going to respond to an aggressive line of questioning.
Is this the first time you’ve seen him [in person]?
Yes, this is the first time I’ve seen him [in person] in my life.
Why was the interview conducted at IMG Academy?
It’s a facility that issues invitations to top prospects to train and get all types of expert advice to prepare for the draft combine. It’s not exclusive to IMG clients. Manti Te’o is not an IMG client.
He’s represented by CAA. Many different agents send their potential draftees [to IMG]. Getting back to the interview, you knew you had no time limit. What was your strategy?
It really was the chronology, the backbone of this interview. You just needed him to lay it all out there. You stop, you start . . . you want to subject him, if that’s the right word, to as much aggressive questioning as warrants. You want to get the whole story down. It’s basically a 2 1/2-hour “tell me what happened,” and “why did you do that?”
He seemed very comfortable. He didn’t seem to betray any nervousness. Maybe I’m gullible, but he was very convincing, I thought. I think all the tough questions were asked. I’m sure there are going to be people who are going to point out questions that were missed. I apologize if I missed a followup. . . .I was just impressed. I asked him at some point 300 questions and I don’t think he ever said, “I don’t want to talk about that. No comment. Off the record.” I don’t think he did it once. I’ll have to check the transcript but I don’t think he did it once.
Were there a couple of off-the record moments?
There were a couple of off-the-record moments, as I recall, but they were not initiated by Manti Te’o. They were initiated by his advisors. They really were, as far as I can recall, they were [just advising him] to listen to what is being asked, answer that question.
Why did ESPN agree to do the interview without video?
I understand why people are frustrated, and as I told Ed Sherman, none more than I. Obviously we wanted the cameras, but those were the conditions. And we could ask any question we wanted, no holds barred, nothing is off limits. And we could have as much time as we wanted. But [the advisors] felt he’d be more comfortable, relaxed and self confident without cameras there.
We are trying to get this story. We’re trying to advance this story. We’re trying to get the person at the center of this to talk and tell his story. We have the opportunity to do it and share that with the audience with the world of large. To say, “No, we’re not going to do it because he doesn’t want to do it on camera” is a silly notion. I think it would be irresponsible, I would argue, to say no under those conditions. I don’t know who would.
What surprised you most about the interview as a whole?
There were several moments where my jaw went slack. Each of those moments was about something Te’o had said about how elaborate this hoax was. The lengths to which the alleged perpetrators went to deceive him, according to him, is really chilling and frightening. The false identities, the text messages. Knowing that his grandmother had died Sept. 12 and making him think — if he’s telling the truth — that [his girlfriend] Lennay Kekua had died that same day. The sickness of the mind that would work that way, knowing that his grandmother died.
There was a 9-year-old girl, Manti Te’o said, was part of this exchange, enlisted in this, he says, by Ronaiah Tuisasosopo at the USC game in LA in November. She was supposed to be Lennay Kekua’s cousin. He thought he’d be meeting her because he’d been communicating with the 9-year-old girl since the supposed death of Lennay, and he wanted a face-to-face meeting.
He had never gotten a face-to-face meeting, I don’t think, with anybody in the family. This would have been the first with the sibling and with this little girl. . . . The sibling had some excuse, Te’o says, for not showing up. Instead, Tuisasosopo shows up with this 9-year-old girl. Whether she knew about the hoax or not . . . for someone to use her as a prop is reprehensible.
Anything surprise you about the reaction to the interview itself?
You know, I learned a long time ago in these situations when you’ve done something that people are talking about alot, Stay away from the Internet. I think I’m on a self-imposed Twitter moratorium, because it will just drive you crazy if you read every little thing that people are saying.
I’m not saying I’m not interested; but I realize it would just drive me crazy. I’ve got too much to focus on now, in terms of, we’re still reporting the story.
If Twitter had existed when I’d done some other interviews, I’d probably have been lying in bed, quivering all day. The tone of discourse, shall we say, is not always at the the level you would hope it to be.
Can you explain the direct messages Te’o shared with you?
As I recall, he showed me a bunch of stuff on his phone, I think it was an iPhone and he subsequently emailed me, I don’t know, 20 or 22 files and we went over them one-by-one, but I can’t say exactly which ones I saw on the phone before having seen them emailed to me as screengrabs. I just don’t have that kind of precise recollection of which ones.
At that time of night I didn’t send it some sort of forensic Twitter analyst to see whether they were real, but I know we circled back around with Manti through his advisors and they said he is adamant that they are real. And I’m sure if they’re not real, someone will figure it out. It would shock me, not because I’m easily shocked or I’m entirely gullible here. . . but, it was an important piece of the information about getting these direct messages, but it certainly didn’t have anything to do with the whole story he had laid out previously.
Twitter had you “double-trending” as both “Schaap” and “Schapp” made the Top 10. Reaction?
It’s one of those things – you’re not sure you ever want to see that but I think [Friday] night, it was a good thing. I live with the “APP” thing – it even gets spelled wrong on our air more than I would like to admit.