|Manti Te'o Denies 'Faking It' in Girlfriend Hoax, Admits He 'Tailored' Story|
|By MICHAEL S. JAMES (@bymsj) , SENI TIENABESO (@seniABC) , CHRISTINA NG (@ChristinaNg27) and MATTHEW JAFFE||Jan 18, 2013, 10:22 PM|
While Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te'o told ESPN that he "wasn't faking it" when he talked about his love for a woman who now appears to be part of an elaborate hoax involving an online relationship with a fictional girlfriend, he acknowledged that he had crafted stories about the woman he had called the love of his life.
Te'o admitted to a few mistakes in his own conduct, including telling his father he met "Lennay Kekua" in Hawaii even though his attempt to meet her actually failed. Later retellings of that tale led to inconsistencies in media reports, Te'o said, adding that he never actually met Kekua in person.
Te'o added that he feared people would think it was crazy for him to be involved with someone that he never met, so, "I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away."
Te'o said he only learned for sure this week that he had been duped.
"When they hear the facts, they'll know," Te'o told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap in his first interview since the story broke. "They'll know that there is no way that I could be a part of this."
"I wasn't faking it," he said during a 2 1/2-hour interview, according to ESPN.com.
On Wednesday, Te'o told Schaap he had received a Twitter message from a man he says was named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo apologizing for the hoax.
According to ESPN.com, Te'o also spoke to Tuiasosopo on the phone Wednesday. He found out that "two guys and a girl are responsible for the whole thing," he said. But he did not know the identities of the other individuals involved, other than the man he says was Tuiasosopo.
Te'o said he was not suspicious of the relationship until Dec. 6, when he received a phone call from a woman claiming she was Kekua, even though Kekua had allegedly passed away three months earlier.
"They said 'It's Lennay'. And so we carried on that conversation and I just got mad," Te'o told ESPN. "And I just went on a rampage. Like 'How could you do this to me?' I ended that conversation by saying simply this, 'You know what? Lennay, my Lennay died on September 12th.'"
The sports website Deadspin, which first revealed the hoax this week, has reported that Tuiasosopo, a 22-year-old of Samoan descent who lives in Antelope Valley, Calif., asked a woman he knew for her photo and that photo became the face of Kekua's Twitter account.
Te'o told Schaap that Tuiasosopo was represented to him as Kekua's cousin.
"I hope he learns," Te'o said of Tuiasosopo, according to the interview on ESPN.com. "I hope he understands what he's done. I don't wish an ill thing to somebody. I just hope he learns. I think embarrassment is big enough."
Te'o and Kekua's relationship got started on Facebook during his freshman year, he said to Schaap.
"My relationship with Lennay wasn't a four-year relationship," Te'o said, according to ESPN.com. "There were blocks and times and periods in which we would talk and then it would end."
He showed Schaap Facebook correspondence indicating that other people knew of Kekua -- though Te'o now believes they, too, were tricked.
The relationship became more intense, Te'o said, after he received a call that Kekua was in a coma following a car accident involving a drunk driver on April 28.
Soon, Te'o and Kekua became inseparable over the phone, he said, continuing their phone conversations through her recovery from the accident, and then during her supposed battle against leukemia.
Even so, Te'o never tried to visit Kekua at her hospital in California.
"It never really crossed my mind," he said, according to ESPN.com. "I don't know. I was in school."
But the communication between the two was intense. They even had ritual where they discussed scripture every day, Te'o said. His parents also participated via text message, he said, and Te'o showed Schaap some of the texts.
ESPN's 2 1/2-hour interview was conducted in Bradenton, Fla., with Te'o's lawyer present but without video cameras. Schaap said Te'o was composed, comfortable and in command, and that he said he didn't want to go on camera to keep the setting intimate and avoid a big production
According to ABC News interviews and published reports, Te'o received phone calls, text messages and letters before every football game from his "girlfriend." He was in contact with her family, including a twin brother, a second brother, sister and parents. He called often to check in with them, just as he did with his own family. And "Kekua" kept in contact with Te'o's friends and family, and teammates spoke to her on the phone.
"There are a remarkable number of characters involved. We don't know how many people they represent," Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said at a news conference this week. "There are male and female characters, brothers, cousins, mother, and we don't know if it's two people playing multiple characters or multiple people.
"It goes to the sophistication of this, that there are all these sort of independent pieces that reinforce elements of the story all the way through," he said.
One of Te'o's teammates who asked not to be identified told ABC News that it was normal for Te'o to pass his phone around to teammates when he was on the line with "Lennay" so they could say hello to her. "I talked to her," this teammate said. "I wasn't suspicious."
When Te'o got the call telling him that Lennay had died last fall, he was in the locker room, the teammate said.
"He got real emotional, crying," the teammate said. "He's an emotional guy."
The teammate said he thinks Te'o genuinely got hoaxed.
A newly released transcript of Sports Illustrated writer Pete Thamel's Sept. 23 interview with Te'o gives a hint at the staggering depth of the deception.
Te'o's knowledge about the details of his girlfriend's life was often murky, including her majors in school, occupation and extent of her injuries after the alleged car accident.
What he was absolutely clear about was how much time he spent in contact with her, especially while she was in the hospital recovering from the car accident, which led to the discovery of her leukemia.
"I talked to my girlfriend every single day," Te'o told Themel. "I slept on the phone with her every single day. When she was going through chemo, she would have all these pains and the doctors were saying they were trying to give her medicine to make her sleep. She still couldn't sleep. She would say, 'Just call my boyfriend and have him on the phone with me, and I can sleep.' I slept on the phone with her every single night."
He would spend eight hours a night with someone, somewhere, breathing on the other end, he told Thamel.
Te'o recounted how his girlfriend who was "on a machine" after being in a coma.
"We lost her, actually, twice. She flatlined twice. They revived her twice," he said. "It was just a trippy situation."
For a while Kekua was unable to talk and he described the nurse-deemed "miracle" of how Kekua's breathing would pick up when she heard his voice on the phone.
"There were lengthy, long telephone conversations. There was sleeping with the phone on connected to each other," Swarbrick said. "The issue of who it is, who's playing what role, what's real and what's not here is a more complex question than I can get into."
Perhaps one of the most touching displays of love from Kekua to Te'o, he told the writer, was the one-page letter she would write him on her iPad before each game. One of her siblings, often her twin brother Noa, would then read him the letter over the phone before sending it to him.
"She and I, man, we had this relationship where it was just amazing," Te'o told Thamel. "With all of that time on her hands in the hospital, she was never thinking about herself and what was hurting her. She was just always thinking about others. She went on and wrote a letter to me before every game. Things that she would want me to know."
Kekua and her family were also in frequent contact with Te'o's family and friends.
Te'o's father, Brian Te'o, told Themel that he had received a condolence text message from Kekua after his mother died. They also spoke on the phone "at length" and Brian Te'o also spoke to Kekua's brothers after her death.
Dalton Hilliard, a close friend of Te'o's from Punahou High in Honolulu who now plays football for UCLA, told Thamel that he was often in touch with Kekua.
"She was a very supportive, loving passionate individual," Hilliard told the writer. "She was all about God and prayer and being able to have faith. Me and her never met in person. But I felt like this was a testament to who she was. She would still text and tweet me before my games."
When Kekua "died" in September 2012, the news came from her brother who texted Te'o from Kekua's phone number, he told Thamel. The brother then called Te'o to deliver the news.
"He was just crying and crying and crying," Te'o said. "I just had to calm him down. I was like, 'You have to speak clearly. I need to know what's going on.' That's when he told me, 'Lala is gone.' That's what they call her. They call her Lala."
Until speaking with Schaap, Te'o had kept a low-profile since the news of the scandal broke. He had earlier released a statement calling the situation "incredibly embarrassing" and maintaining that he was the victim of a horrible hoax.