Manti Te’o tried to put one of the strangest sports stories in memory behind him, insisting he was the target of an elaborate online hoax in which he fell for a fake woman created by pranksters, then admitting his own lies made the bizarre ordeal worse.
Whether his off-camera interview with ESPN was enough to demonstrate that the Notre Dame star linebacker was a victim in the scheme instead of a participant is still a question.
The most important judges of the All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist may be pro football teams. Te’o has finished his coursework at Notre Dame and is preparing for the NFL draft at a training facility in Florida, where the 21/2-hour interview was conducted late Friday night.
ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap said that the 21-year-old Te’o answered all his questions in a calm voice, and tried to clear up the mysteries and inconsistencies of the case.
Among the highlights:
Te’o denied being in on the hoax. “No. Never,” he said. “I wasn’t faking it. I wasn’t part of this.”
Te’o provided a timeline and details of his relationship with Lennay Kekua, his virtual sweetheart, who went through an array of medical calamities before “dying” of Leukemia in September, just hours after Te’o got real news of his grandmother’s death.
He acknowledged that he lied to his father about meeting Kekua in person, then exacerbated the situation after her supposed death when he “tailored” his comments to reporters to make it sound as if their relationship was more than just phone calls and electronic messages.
“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,” Te’o said. “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.”
In the same part of the conversation, Te’o said: “Out of this whole thing, that is my biggest regret. And that is the biggest, I think, that’s from my point of view, that is a mistake I made.”
He detailed the confusing phone conversation he had on Dec. 6, when the woman who was posing as Kekua contacted him and told him one last hard-to-believe story about how she had to fake her own death to evade drug dealers. Te’o said it left him piecing together what exactly was going on over the next few days, when he was bouncing from interview to interview while taking part in the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York on Dec. 8 and another awards dinner in Los Angeles the next night. He mentioned his girlfriend in interviews at least three times over that period.