Confusion and disbelief, former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o told ESPN Friday, are what kept him from breaking his silence until now.
The most pertinent piece of information that came out of a two and a half hour interview with Jeremy Schaap at the IMG Sports Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where Te’o is preparing for the upcoming NFL Draft, is that the Heisman Trophy runner-up wasn’t knowingly part of an elaborate hoax involving his girlfriend — a woman he believed to be Lennay Kekua, who purportedly passed away from leukemia on Sept. 12.
Te'o denied being part of the hoax.
"No. Never," Te'o told ESPN about whether or not he helped carry out the ruse, which is now known to have been masterminded by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and others. "I wasn't faking it," he said. "I wasn't part of this."
But Te’o was part of this … he was the mark.
“I'll be OK,” he told Schapp. “As long as my family's OK, I'll be fine."
Deadspin.com first broke the news Wednesday that Kekua not only hadn’t died, but that she never existed. It was a bombshell first felt by Te’o on Dec. 6, the day he said the woman posing all along as Kekua, called him and explained she had faked her death to evade drug dealers.
"She said, well, Manti, it's me," Te'o recalled. "That's all she said. And I played stupid for a little bit. I was like, 'Oh, I know it's you, U'ilani (Kekua's purported sister). What do you mean?' And she's like, 'No, Manti, it's me.'
"She said, 'It's Lennay.' So we carried on that conversation, and I just got mad. I just went on a rampage. 'How could you do this to me?' I ended that conversation by saying simply this: 'You know what? Lennay, my Lennay, died on Sept. 12.'"
The only deception Te’o said he was guilty of, however, was how he tailored his account of how he met Kekua. He admitted that the relationship began on social media website Facebook when he was a sophomore at Notre Dame in 2010, and that it continued to develop into a romance via online and telephone contact only. Out of his embarrassment as to how odd that might sound to his family, Te’o said he lied to his father, Brian, telling him he had met Kekua in person.
Quotes attributed to Brian Te’o about his son’s in-the-flesh encounters with Kekua contradicted details of the relationship Manti Te’o shared with Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick on Dec. 27-28, which Swarbrick explained in a press conference Wednesday evening.
"I knew that — I even knew that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn't meet," Te’o said. "And that alone people find out that this girl who died I was so invested in, and I didn't meet her as well."
Te’o denied that he fabricated certain parts of the relationship to help draw attention to his Heisman Trophy candidacy.
Te'o spoke of Kekua as his girlfriend several times after Dec. 6. The first public reference was at the Heisman Trophy presentation in New York on Dec. 8. The second was on ESPN Radio the same day. He also spoke about Kekua in a Los Angeles Times column on Dec. 10 and at a Jan. 3 news conference before the BCS title game, though he didn’t refer to her as his girlfriend directly in that instance.
Te’o explained to ESPN that he wasn’t positive until Wednesday that Kekua was in fact a fictitious persona played by an unknown female.
“What Manti Te’o told me was that after he gets this phone call on Dec. 6 and somebody says ‘I’m alive; I’m Lennay, I’m alive,’ he’s utterly confused,” Schaap explained. “He is told some story about how she’s been in hiding from drug dealers. I know it sounds fantastical, but you have to believe me that he was very convincing the way he laid this out.
“That he was not fully convinced that Lennay Kekua did not exist until two days ago when he heard from Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who has been reported to be the person behind this hoax, Manti Te’o told me that Tuiasosopo called him two days ago and told him that he was behind the hoax. … [Te’o] showed me Twitter messages apparently from Tuiasosopo apologizing for perpetrating this hoax on him, embarrassing him, etc.”
Te’o explained that the relationship didn’t take a romantic turn until last year, when Kekua claimed her father had passed away.
“I was that shoulder to cry on,” Te’o said. “And I kind of just naturally cared for the person. And so our relationship kind of took another level. But not the kind of exclusive level yet."
He said he was informed Kekua was involved in a car accident on April 28, 2012, and that she was in a coma until mid-May. Despite having what he described as a spiritual connection with the woman, he never visited her in the hospital.
“It never really crossed my mind,” Te’o told Schapp. “I don't know. I was in school.
Kekua told Te’o that doctors had discovered leukemia when she was recovering from the crash, and the two spent nearly every night on the phone together while she underwent chemotherapy. Just six hours after Te’o learned that his grandmother had passed away on Sept. 12, he received a call from one of Kekua’s relatives telling him that she had lost her battle with cancer.
Before Kekua died, she phoned Te’o to offer her condolences.
“I was angry. I didn't want to be bothered," he said. "So Lennay was just trying to be there for me. I just — I just wanted my own space. We got in an argument. She was saying, 'You know, I'm trying to be here for you.' I didn't want to be bothered. I wanted to be left alone. I just wanted to be by myself.
"Last thing she told me was 'Just know I love you.'"
That is until he received a haunting call from her once again on Dec. 6. The two spoke several times in the weeks that followed as Te’o tried to verify that the woman claiming to have faked her death was the same woman he believed to be his girlfriend. Once Te’o understood that he had been the victim of a hoax, he explained the situation to his parents once he arrived home in Hawaii over Christmas break. The Te’o family informed Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator on Dec. 26.
Te’o told ESPN he first met Tuiasosopo after Notre Dame beat USC on Nov. 24. Tuiasosopo reached out to Te’o Wednesday and admitted to perpetrating the hoax that apparently played out until the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7. Te’o revealed Friday that a group of people related to Tuiasosopo showed up at the Notre Dame team hotel in Miami.
“Two guys and a girl are responsible for the whole thing," Te'o said. “… According to Ronaiah, Ronaiah's one."
Added Te’o: “I hope he learns," Te'o said. "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."