By Ralph D. Russo/The Associated Press
NEW YORK — Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o insisted he had no role in the bizarre hoax involving his “dead” girlfriend and told ESPN on Friday night that he was duped by a person who has since apologized to him.
In an off-camera interview Friday with ESPN, Te’o said Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a 22-year-old acquaintance who lives in California, contacted him two days ago and confessed to the prank. Deadspin.com first exposed the scheme on Wednesday and indicated Tuiasosopo was involved in it.
“I wasn’t faking it,” ESPN quoted Te’o as saying during the 2 1-2 hour interview. “I wasn’t part of this. When they hear the facts they’ll know. They’ll know there is no way I could be a part of this.”
Te’o said he first met Tuiasosopo in person after the Southern California game in November. According to the linebacker, Tuiasosopo told him he was the cousin of Lennay Kekua, the woman who Te’o believed he had fallen for through Internet chats and long phone conversations. But Kekua never existed.
“Two guys and a girl are responsible for the whole thing,” Te’o told ESPN. “According to Ronaiah, Ronaiah’s one.”
The Tuiasosopo family has declined several interview requests from The Associated Press since Wednesday.
Te’o said he never met Kekua face-to-face and when he tried to speak with her via Skype and video phone calls, the picture was blocked. Still, he didn’t figure out the ruse.
He also told ESPN that he lied to his father about having met Kekua. To cover that up, he apparently lied to everyone else.
After he was told Kekua had died of leukemia in early September, Te’o admitted he misled the public about the nature of the “relationship” because he was uncomfortable saying it was purely an electronic romance.
“That goes back to what I did with my dad. I knew that. I even knew that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn’t meet,” he said. “So I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away.”
Te’o’s first interview since the story broke came at the end of a day that started with Notre Dame posting a podcast of athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s radio show, during which he implored the Heisman Trophy runner-up to speak publicly about the episode. Already, it had turned the feel-good story line of the college football season into a dark and strange one.
Te’o took Notre Dame’s advice, but this was no Lance Armstrong-with-Oprah Winfrey made for TV mea culpa.
ESPN conducted the interview with Te’o at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where Te’o is preparing for the NFL draft and hopes to be among the first-round picks. The network produced only still photos of the interview, with reporter Jeremy Schaap sitting at large table with the linebacker. Schaap then provided details on “Sports Center” and a story was posted on ESPN.com.
Some wondered whether Te’o had been in on the fake girlfriend scheme in an attempt to gain positive publicity and attention. Schaap said Te’o firmly denied that. The nation’s best defender also said the hoax affected his play in the BCS national championship, a 42-14 loss to Alabama in which he performed poorly.
Te’o told ESPN that he wasn’t entirely sure he was the victim of a hoax until earlier this week, just two days ago, when Tuiasosopo apologized. As Notre Dame officials said earlier, he did get a call from the person posing as Kekua on Dec. 6 — but it was to tell him she had not died at all, and to carry on their courtship.
Te’o was confused. He finally confided in his parents over Christmas break in his home state of Hawaii and told Notre Dame coaches what was going on Dec. 26, according to Swarbrick.
“My relationship with Lennay wasn’t a four-year relationship,” Te’o said. “There were blocks and times and periods in which we would talk and then it would end,” but he offered her a “shoulder to cry on” when she told him her father had died.
Te’o said he was told Kekua was in a coma following an April 28 car accident, but she awoke the following month. He never made an attempt to visit her in the hospital.
“It never really crossed my mind. I don’t know. I was in school,” he told ESPN.
Then came the day in September when his grandmother died and the woman known as Kekua reached out to him.
“I was angry. I didn’t want to be bothered,” he told ESPN. “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.'”
Te’o was told later that day Kekua had died.
ESPN did not play audio of the interview, relying instead on descriptions of Te’o and his statements from reporter Schaap. Audio clips were posted later. According to the reporter, Te’o was calm, and had no interest in going on camera.
“He was very relieved, he told me at the end of it, to have had a chance to tell his story,” Schaap said.
Te’o told ESPN the relationship with Kekua dated to his freshman year at Notre Dame, the 2009-10 season, and they met via Facebook.
Te’o also provided details of just how devilish the hoax was — how Kekua spoke to his mother about Mormonism, how he could hear a supposed ventilator when she was in her coma, even how she sought his checking account number so she could send him some money (he declined).
At the Notre Dame student union early Saturday, many people didn’t even seem to notice the story about Te’o playing out on television.
In the lounge section, six people watched ESPN as the report aired on TVs on opposite sides of the room and several said they weren’t satisfied with what they saw and heard.
Tony Stedge, a freshman from Seattle, said he supports Te’o, but he’d still like to hear from the star player.
“I think he should be able to do it in his own time, whenever he is comfortable,” he said.
Te’o’s comments to ESPN though made it sound as if he is ready to put this all behind him — and Tuiasosopo.
“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.”
He added: “I’ll be OK. As long as my family’s OK, I’ll be fine.”
Associated Press writer Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind., contributed to this report.