Manti Te'o denies being part of hoax

Updated: January 21, 2013, 10:16 AM ET
ESPN.com

This story has been corrected. Read below

Manti Te'o denied being part of a hoax involving a relationship with a person online whom he considered his girlfriend, during an interview with ESPN's Jeremy Schaap on Friday night, but did say he "tailored" his stories so people would think he "met her before she passed away."

"No. Never," Te'o said during the 2½-hour interview. "I wasn't faking it. I wasn't part of this."

Te'o said he didn't know for sure that "Lennay Kekua" never existed until Wednesday, when Ronaiah Tuiasosopo called Te'o and admitted he was behind the hoax.

Te'o said he received a Twitter direct message from Tuiasosopo where Tuiasosopo said he was the perpetrator, along with one other man and a woman. Te'o then talked to Tuiasosopo on the phone Wednesday.

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

Later Wednesday, Deadspin.com posted a story detailing an online relationship Te'o thought he had with Kekua which he says he learned was a hoax. Te'o said he has not read the Deadspin story or any other media report since the news broke.

Te'o spoke at the IMG Training Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he is preparing for the NFL draft. There were no television cameras at the interview, which was recorded on audio.

The Notre Dame linebacker said he did not make up anything to help his Heisman Trophy candidacy. Te'o finished second to Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel.

"When (people) hear the facts, they'll know," he said. "They'll know that there is no way that I could be part of this."

[+] Enlarge@LennayKay message to Manti Te'o
from TwitterTwitter messages Te'o says he received this week from Tuiasosopo.

In the interview, Te'o also said:

• He lied to his father about having met Kekua, prompting his father to tell reporters that Te'o and Kekua had met. Several media stories indicated that Te'o and Kekua had met. Te'o insisted they never did.

• He tried to speak with Kekua via Skype and FaceTime on several occasions, but the person at the other end of the line was in what he called a "black box" and wasn't seen.

• He planned to meet Kekua in person several times, including in Los Angeles and Hawaii, but on each occasion she called off the meeting or sent others in her place.

• The first time he met Tuiasosopo was in Los Angeles. Notre Dame beat USC there on Nov. 24.

• A group of people he said are connected to Tuiasosopo showed up at the team hotel, after curfew, for the Discover BCS National Championship Game in Miami. Te'o said he knew they were at the hotel because the group took photos in the hotel lobby. Someone in the group called Te'o, saying they were waiting for Kekua to join them in the lobby and asking if she was with him. Te'o then hung up. Te'o said it did not affect his play in the game, where Notre Dame lost to Alabama 42-14.

• Te'o was never asked for money during the plot, but Kekua once requested his checking account number in order to send him money. Te'o did not provide his account number.

A South Bend Tribune report described Te'o and Kekua touching hands during an in-person meeting in 2009 at Stanford, but Te'o said that never happened and he didn't know Kekua until 2010.

"I'd never told anybody that I've touched her hand," he said.

I even knew, that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn't meet, and that alone -- people find out that this girl who died, I was so invested in, I didn't meet her, as well. So I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away, so that people wouldn't think that I was some crazy dude.

-- Manti Te'o

Te'o said he altered his stories so his family and others would think he did met Kekua in person.

"That goes back to what I did with my dad," Te'o said. "I knew that -- I even knew, that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn't meet, and that alone -- people find out that this girl who died, I was so invested in, I didn't meet her, as well. So I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away, so that people wouldn't think that I was some crazy dude."

Their relationship started, Te'o said, when Kekua sent him a friend request on Facebook the winter of his freshman year at Notre Dame. The two then had intermittent contact over the phone.

"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."

Te'o said their relationship escalated after Kekua told him her father had died.

"She told me her dad passed away, and I was there. I was just being that shoulder to cry on. And I kind of just naturally cared for the person," Te'o said. "And so our relationship kind of took another level. But not the kind of exclusive level yet."

He said he was told Kekua was in a car accident April 28 and was in the hospital. He said he was told she was in a coma.

"I would ask to talk to her, and the only communication I had was through Kainoa, her brother, and he used her phone," Te'o said. "And he would put me supposedly right next to her mouth and I could hear the ventilator going. And she would be breathing. ... They said every time I was on the phone, they would tell me the nurse noticed that whoever was on the phone with her, she must have recognized the voice, because she would start breathing quicker and I could hear on the phone."

Te'o was told Kekua awoke from the coma in mid-May. From that point, the relationship became more serious and they spoke on the phone every day.

I slept on the phone with her every night. ... I'd be on the phone. And she had complications from the accident, and she said the only thing that could help her sleep was if I was on the phone. So I would be on the phone, and I'd have the phone on the whole night.

-- Manti Te'o

"Every day. I slept on the phone with her every night," Te'o said. "... I'd be on the phone. And she had complications from the accident, and she said the only thing that could help her sleep was if I was on the phone. So I would be on the phone, and I'd have the phone on the whole night."

Schaap asked why Te'o didn't go to see Kekua in the hospital.

"It never really crossed my mind. I don't know. I was in school," he said.

Te'o talked often about a "spiritual connection" between him and Kekua. Te'o discussed a ritual where he and Kekua exchanged scripture readings. Soon, his father and mother joined in. They used the SOAP method of study, which stands for scripture, observation, application, and prayer.

"We'd slack off sometimes, and my dad would say, 'Who is slacking now? Whose turn is it to send the scripture?' But for the most part it was every day," Te'o said.

Te'o also said that his mother "had had lengthy conversations with her about her experiences about being a convert (to Mormonism), and what she thought and shared with Lennay things to look for and things that she should do."

In late June or early July, Te'o said Kekua and her brother told him she had leukemia.

On Sept. 12, his mother and father called Te'o to tell him his grandmother had died. He said Kekua called him after his grandmother's death.

[+] EnlargeManti Te€™o and Jeremy Schaap
Ryan Jones/ESPN ImagesNotre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o sat down with ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap in his first interview regarding the hoax surrounding someone he considered to be his late girlfriend.

"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 -- 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.' "

Later that day, Te'o was told Kekua had died from leukemia. He said he was in the Notre Dame locker room when he got the call.

Te'o said he stayed in contact with Kekua's family after her death. They told him not to come to the funeral because "her mom told them she didn't want me to come."

"They didn't want -- and I didn't want myself -- I didn't want that to be the first time that I saw her was laying in a coffin," Te'o said.

Then months later, on Dec. 6, Te'o said he received a phone call from the number Kekua had used. He answered and a woman's voice on the other end said there was something she needed to tell him, but it could wait until after the national title game on Jan. 8.

"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.' "

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.'

-- Manti Te'o

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 said he was just confused at this point, and told his parents -- and then the Notre Dame staff -- over Christmas that Kekua might be alive. Notre Dame then started an investigation.

Te'o spoke of Kekua as his girlfriend several times after Dec. 6. One was at the Heisman Trophy presentation in New York on Dec. 8 to ESPN's Chris Fowler. Another was on ESPN Radio the same day. There were two other times, including a column in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 10. He was also asked about it at a Jan. 3 news conference before the BCS title game but did not refer to his "girlfriend" directly.

Te'o said he still spoke of her in interviews because he was unclear what had really happened.

"I didn't know, myself. I didn't know what to believe," Te'o said. "All I knew for sure in my head was that she died on Sept. 12."

The person claiming to be Kekua told him stories about hiding from "drug people" and provided him with photographs of a different woman than he had seen before.

"There were a whole bunch of possibilities going through my head," he said. "She could have died. This could be (U'ilani) trying to pull a stunt on me."

After the interview, Te'o showed Schaap Twitter direct messages from Tuiasosopo that contained an apology for orchestrating the hoax.

Te'o was asked what he thought should happen to 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."

Due to a transcription error, how Manti Te'o felt he played in the BCS title game was misrepresented in an earlier version of this story. Te'o said he was not affected by the story surrounding a girlfriend hoax during the game.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE