In an interview with ABC News’ Katie Couric set to air Thursday evening, the Heisman Trophy runner-up says he fibbed to the media — albeit briefly — after learning that the death of Lennay Kekua was a hoax.
Te’o said he believed Kekua, whom he thought was his girlfriend despite never meeting her face to face, had died of leukemia on September 12 after a car accident left her hospitalized. But he received a call December 6 from the woman he thought was Kekua, and she said she was alive, he has said.
Te’o told ABC he felt he had no choice but to continue the ruse. On December 8, ahead of the Heisman Trophy presentation, Te’o said he “lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer.” In a New York Post interview published more than three weeks later, Te’o said memories of his grandfather helped him cope with the losses of his grandmother and girlfriend, whom he’d previously said died on the same day.
“So when I lost my grandmother and Lennay, I thought of him. He was my strength,” Te’o told the Post, according to a December 30 article.
It was true that his grandmother had died, but Te’o conceded during the ABC interview that he wasn’t being honest about Kekua.
“Now I get a phone call on December 6, saying that she’s alive and then I’m going be put on national TV two days later. And to ask me about the same question. You know, what would you do?” Te’o said, according to clips of the interview published on ABC News’ website.
He further pleaded with Couric to empathize with his plight.
“Katie, put yourself in my situation. I, my whole world told me that she died on September 12. Everybody knew that. This girl, who I committed myself to, died on September 12,” Te’o said.
While he said he didn’t know whether the now-debunked storyline helped him place second in Heisman Trophy voting, he insisted his emotions surrounding the loss of Kekua were authentic.
“What I went through was real. You know, the feeling, the pain, the sorrow — that was all real, and that’s something that I can’t fake,” he said.
Te’o also denied reveling in the attention he received for playing so outstandingly on the gridiron after suffering such devastating personal losses.
“I think, for me, the only thing that I basked in was that I had an impact on people, that people turned to me for inspiration, and I think that was the only thing I focused on,” the Hawaii-born Mormon said. “My story, I felt, was a guy who in times of hardship and in times of trial, held strong to his faith, held strong to his family, and I felt that was my story.”
Te’o’s parents, Brian and Ottilia Te’o, were also on hand for the interview. His father was quoted in an October article in the South Bend (Indiana) Tribune, saying his son and Kekua had met at a football game in Palo Alto, California, and exchanged numbers. Their love affair ensued from there, the paper reported.
Last week, Te’o said, however, that he had lied to his dad because he was embarrassed to admit he was in love with a woman he’d never laid eyes on.
“I knew that — I even knew that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn’t meet,” he told ESPN. “And that alone, people find out that this girl who died I was so invested in, and I didn’t meet her as well.”
Asked his response to those who say his son is a liar who “manipulated the truth, really for personal gain,” Te’o’s father broke into tears.
“People can speculate about what they think he is. I’ve known him 21 years of his life. And he’s not a liar. He’s a kid,” Te’o’s father told Couric.
Questions have also been raised about Te’o telling Sports Illustrated in October that Kekua had attended one of his games, when he issued a statement last week saying he’d never met her.
Because ABC News has made public only snippets of the interview, it’s not clear which parts of the hoax Te’o will address, but the Notre Dame standout has said he’s sure he’ll be vindicated.
“When (people) hear the facts, they’ll know,” Te’o told ESPN last week. “They’ll know that there is no way that I could be part of this.”
Nine days after the Alabama Crimson Tide dismantled the Fighting Irish in the college football national championship, Deadspin broke the story that Kekua didn’t exist. The oft-irreverent sports news website has reported that a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo is involved in the scam and that he created a fake Lennay Kekua Twitter account.
Deadspin’s Timothy Burke, co-author of the story, said friends and relatives of Tuiasosopo’s said he was “doing the Lennay Kakua fake online profile for several years and that he’s caught other people in his trap, but that they caught on way earlier than Manti Te’o did.”
Diane O’Meara, whose photo was used for the fake account, told NBC’s “Today” show that she’d never spoken to Te’o but that Tuiasosopo called her to apologize.
“Ronaiah has called and not only confessed, but he has also apologized, but I don’t think there’s anything you could say to me that would fix this,” she said.
Te’o, likewise, told ESPN that Tuiasosopo tweeted him after the Deadspin story broke, saying he was behind the hoax. He also apologized, Te’o said.
“Two guys and a girl are responsible for the whole thing,” Te’o said, according to ESPN.
An anonymous Notre Dame source told CNN the university’s investigation yielded the same conclusion — that two men and a woman perpetrated the hoax.
At least one of Tuiasosopo’s relatives has defended him, though. His uncle told CNN, “It definitely takes two to tango,” and, “This is not just a matter of blaming it all on Ronaiah.” Tuiasosopo’s father had no comment.
Burke isn’t buying the notion that Te’o is innocent in this mess and emphasizes that Te’o and Tuiasosopo knew each other.
“How dense would Manti Te’o have to be to not realize this was his friend who was behind the account the entire time?” he asked. “I don’t believe Manti Te’o could be that dumb.”