ESPN's Jeremy Schaap finds Manti Te'o 'believable' in interview at Bradenton's IMG Academy

twolfrum@bradenton.comJanuary 19, 2013 

BRADENTON -- A 16-year career at ESPN has led Jeremy Schaap into Bob Knight's lair and within spitting distance of the venomous Bobby Fischer.

On both occasions, Schaap deftly took dangerous confrontations and created unforgettable sports television.

Early Saturday morning, as he waited to cross a deserted 34th Street West near IMG Academy, Schaap stood in the middle of a phenomenon altogether different, but just as compelling.

The tale of Manti Te'o may be the most bizarre in sports history.

Hours earlier, inside the media-repellent walls of IMG, Schaap conducted an exclusive, two-and-a-half hour interview with Te'o, the Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman Trophy contender who claims he was the victim of a hoax that led him to fall in love with and mourn the death of a girl who never existed.

A red-eyed Schaap struggled to sum up the experience.

"It's still going on," Schaap said after a stand-up shot in a Bayshore High School parking lot during the 1 a.m. SportsCenter. "It's 2 a.m.,

and we're not even close to getting wrapped up for the night.

"It's amazing to me how this story has become such a big deal nationally from the minute it broke. It's a very sad story, especially if we're to believe Manti Te'o's story. There are a lot of lessons here for a lot of people, about trust, about technology, about modern society. There are a lot of reasons why it's such a compelling I think for so many people."

During the interview, Te'o insisted he had no part in the hoax and explained away inconsistencies in the story that have led many to question his integrity.

Te'o said Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a 22-year-old acquaintance who lives in California, contacted him two days ago and confessed to the prank. first exposed the hoax Wednesday and indicated Tuiasosopo was involved in it.

Schaap declined to say whether he believed Te'o's story in full.

"Let me put it this way: I found him very believable," he said, stressing the "able."

Schaap agreed to an audio-only interview with Te'o. Excerpts were released throughout the night on ESPN.

"He just felt more comfortable doing it this way, which is understandable," Schaap said. "He didn't want a room with 20 people in there, which is what happens when you've got five cameras. Everything seems like more is at stake when you're on camera. You can't really relax the same way. I understood why he wanted to do it this way. It's not what I wanted, but I understood why he wanted it."

Schaap was unsure if Te'o grasped how big the story has become outside the walls of IMG.

"He must have some sense of it," Schaap said. "He's a little bit shielded from it; he shielded himself from it. But he knows. He knows when the media is swarming and everyone in the world is talking about it. They're already talking about it on Letterman and Leno. He understands."

As early as Wednesday night, reports swirled that Te'o would do an exclusive interview with Schaap.

The days stretched on as commentators, and even Notre Dame officials, urged Te'o to tell his story.

Schaap stayed in town, preparing for the interview.

"I wasn't sure it wouldhappen, but I thought itwould be a good idea tostick around," Schaap said.

"It happened quickly because he wanted to gethis side of the story outthere. He knew the longer he waited, the tougher it would be. Notre Dame said on Wednesday night he'd be talking soon. I could tell he seemed really relieved doing it."

Schaap had an advantage when it came to securing the interview and not just because he works for the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports.

Schaap is well-regarded at IMG Academy, where Te'o had been training for the upcoming NFL draft combine when the story broke and where he has remained cloistered since.

"The funny thing is," Schaap said, "I've spent a ton of time in this place because my father (sports-caster/author Dick Schaap) and (IMG founder) Nick Bollettieri were very close friends. He wrote NickBollettieri's book. When I was a kid, my father would say, 'Oh, go spend a week with Nick.' As recently as a few years ago, I took golf lessons, and Nick put me up at his house. I'm an IMG client."

Schaap said he will try to interview Te'o again before leaving Bradenton but doesn't know that it will happen.

Either way, this story is far from written.

Expect Schaap to stick around for a while.

"My wife would like me to stay out of town as long as possible," Schaap said before heading across 34th Street for more work. "I would suspect I'd be home by Monday. Why, you have any restaurant recommendations?"

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report

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