Former Notre Dame star Manti Te’o said his biggest regret in handling his interactions with the fictitious Lennay Kekua was lying to his father about having had met her.
Manti Te'o said he regrets lying to his father about meeting Lennay Kekua.
Te’o appeared on camera Thursday afternoon for the first time since news broke that the woman he told the world died of leukemia in September never existed. He joined his parents, Brian and Otillia, on Katie Couric’s afternoon talk show. Throughout the hour-long show, the All-American linebacker spoke about how not wanting to disappoint his parents complicated a cloudy hoax and how ultimately dragging their name into national headlines this month was what hurts him the most.
“The hardest part of this whole experience is to see my family go through it all because of something I did,” he said. “The greatest joy in any child’s life is to make your parents proud, and the greatest pain is to know that they’re experiencing pain because of you.”
Couric quizzed Te’o on several details of the bizarre tale of Kekua, an online persona allegedly created by California native Ronaiah Tuiasosopo with whom Te’o fell in love after months of long phone conversations and years of casual online interactions.
Reports this fall that Te’o and Kekua had previously met in Hawaii raised doubts about his innocence in the scam. He said those stories began last winter after a failed attempt to meet Kekua in person while he was home for Christmas break. He told his father the meeting was successful because he didn’t want to lose his family’s approval.
“That’s the thing I regret the most,” Te’o said. “I knew that if he knew that I didn’t meet her immediately he would say, ‘No, red flag.’ A red flag that I obviously should’ve seen, but I didn’t.”
Brian and Otillia Te’o both said they were proud of the way their son handled a difficult situation. They, too, had spoken with the person claiming to be Kekua and felt as confused as he did while the hoax was unraveling.
“He did exactly what I would expect a responsible, respectable, young man to do —extend himself to someone that said they lost their father and now they have cancer,” Otillia Te’o said. “I’m proud of his character. It just hurts to see his picture and his name being displayed as someone that is dishonest.”
Te’o thought he was going to meet Kekua last May on his way home to Laie, Hawaii after finishing the spring semester. Two weeks before the meeting, he got a call from someone claiming to be Kekua’s brother who said she had been in a serious car accident. Te’o said he didn’t visit her in the hospital because he didn’t want to disappoint his parents by coming home later than scheduled. Soon after Kekua entered the hospital, she told Te’o she had been diagnosed with leukemia in a story that seemed too tragic to be true.
“Either you’re the most naïve person on the planet or this is the saddest story ever,” Couric said during the interview.
Couric said she saw evidence that Te’o had spent hundreds of hours on the phone in the months that followed talking to Kekua and played a trio of voice messages Kekua left for Te’o in a feminine voice.
Thursday morning, Tuiasosopo’s lawyer told the New York Daily News that the 22-year-old man was the voice on the other end of the phone with Te’o. He said he was a trained actor and vocalist, which allowed him to convincingly mimic a woman’s voice.
“Doesn’t it sound like a girl?” Te’o asked after Couric played the message on the show. “it didn’t sound like a man. It sounded like a woman, but if he somehow made that voice that’s incredible. That’s incredible talent to do that especially every single day.”
The same voice called Te’o on Dec. 6 and told him she faked her death in September to avoid drug dealers. Two days later, in an interview at the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York City, Te’o perpetuated the story that his girlfriend had died of cancer.
Te’o said he told no one about the Dec. 6 phone call in the days that followed as he tried to wrap his mind around the situation.
“I did not know who to turn to,” he said. “I did not know who to tell. I did not know who to trust, and I was scared. I was scared and I did not know what to do.”
Couric questioned why a “big man on campus” didn’t date someone he could see on a regular basis and asked if he was gay. That drew a smile from Te’o in an otherwise emotional interview. “Far from it,” he said.
The program ended by looking forward to what awaits Te’o in the months to follow as he prepares for April’s NFL Draft. He said it wasn’t clear yet if the hoax would have any effect on his status in the pro ranks.
“To be honest with you as long as [my parents] are OK, whatever happens happens,” he said. “As far as my draft status, I hope and pray that good happens, obviously, but as long as my family is OK I can live with whatever happens.”
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