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January 18, 2013

Te'o denies involvement in hoax

Manti Te'o broke his silence on Friday night in a two-and-a-half hour interview with ESPN's Jeremy Schaap, denying involvement in a hoax that exploded this week in revelations that his girlfriend Lennay Kekua never existed.

"I wasn't faking it," Te'o said. "I wasn't part of this."

Te'o said he did not make up details of the relationship to aid his Heisman Trophy campaign but admitted he did lie to his father about meeting Kekua in person after the Stanford game in 2009. Te'o said he came into contact with Kekua during his freshman year on Facebook and that the two never met in person. He said the relationship became serious after Kekua told him her father died and then intensified after Kekua was supposedly in a car crash last April.

Kekua was reported to have died of leukemia on Sept. 12, three days before Notre Dame played at Michigan State. Te'o's grandmother died hours earlier.

Te'o said Kekua called him after learning of his grandmother's death.

"I was angry. I didn't want to be bothered," he said. "So Lennay was just trying to be there for me. 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.'"

From there the Kekua story carried through Notre Dame's improbable run to the national championship game, before a Deadspin report published on Jan. 16 exposed the hoax.

However, Te'o began to learn of the deception and individuals behind the scam in the six weeks leading up to that report, even if he wasn't sure Kekua didn't exist until Wednesday. That's when Te'o said he received a Twitter apology from Ronaiah Tuiasosopo admitting his role as the mastermind behind the hoax. Tuiasosopo said he was behind the scheme along with one other man and a woman.

"Two guys and a girl are responsible for the whole thing," Te'o said. "I don't know (who they are). According to Ronaiah, Ronaiah's one."

Te'o first learned Kekua might be a hoax on Dec. 6 when he received a call from a number he recognized as his dead girlfriend. Te'o also recognized the voice on the other end of the phone as Kekua, who said she had something to tell Te'o after the national championship game.

"I said, 'You have to tell me now, because if you don't tell me now, I'm still going to think about it,'" Te'o said. "She said, 'Well, Manti, it's me.' 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.' "

Te'o asked who "me" was.

"She said, 'It's Lennay,' " he said. "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.' "

Te'o informed Notre Dame of the hoax on Dec. 26 and the University quickly hired an outside firm to conduct an investigation, which was concluded in writing on Jan. 4. Athletics director Jack Swarbrick shared the findings of that report with Te'o's parents the following day in Miami.

Te'o said the ordeal affected his play against Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. Te'o missed an uncharacteristic number of tackles against the Crimson Tide, which routed the Irish in a 42-14 blowout.

ESPN reported that a group, including a woman claiming to be Kekua, showed up at the Notre Dame team hotel before the title game. ESPN then later retracted that claim, reporting instead that it was a group of people related to Tuiasosopo that showed up at the team hotel.

"When you're stuck in big game like that people depend on you," Te'o said. "You need to perform."


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