Given the worldwide attention given to Manti Te'o and his fake girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, it was inevitable the football star would break his silence sooner rather than later. Last night, Te'o sat down for an off-camera interview with ESPN's Jeremy Schaap, where he admitted to lyng about actually meeting Kekua because he believed his friends, family and coaches would think he was "crazy" for engaging in an intense relationship with someone he'd never met. But, throughout the interview, Te'o maintains he was not complicit in perpetuating the story for personal gain.
"I wasn't faking it. I wasn't part of this," Te'o tells ESPN's Jeremy Schapp, insisting he was duped by the online hoax, now commonly referred to as "Catifshing," thanks to the documentary and MTV show of the same name.
"She friend requested me on Facebook the winter of my freshman year at Notre Dame," Te'o explains. "We spoke on the phone. We spoke on the phone and talked on the phone, texted. But it's always as acquaintances, as friends. And then she contacted me that Purdue game and she just said 'Hey, how are you doing? I'm going through some hard times with my boyfriend' -- at the time she had a boyfriend at the time. And just want you to be there for me, just be my friend. I said sure, I'll be here for you."
Te'o clarifies that the duration of the relationship has been widely misreported, saying that their were large chunks of time they went without speaking throughout the four year period in question.
Then, during Te'o's junior year at Notre Dame, Kekua (who is now believed to be a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and at least one female accomplice) reconnected with him. "We spoke on the phone. We spoke on the phone and talked on the phone, texted. But it's always as acquaintances, as friends ... And eventually we just kept talking and kept talking and kept talking. Everything kind of changed a little when her dad passed away. She told me her dad passed away, and I was there. I was just being that shoulder to cry on ... And so our relationship kind of took another level. But not the kind of exclusive level yet. I was trying to get to know her and get to know a whole bunch of other people. And for that period of time we talked and talked and got to know each other better and better and better. And everything changed April 28th. I got a phone call from her brother that she had got in the car accident."
Te'o says that Kekua's brother acted as an intermediary between them throughout her hospitalization. "I would ask to talk to her, and the only communication I had was through her brother and he used her phone," Te'o says. "He would put me supposedly right next to her mouth and I could hear the ventilator going. And she would be breathing ... They were telling me, 'Bro, she recognized your voice. We know she's there. We know she can hear you.' She would quicken her voice. And I heard it on the phone. They would do it to me. And so that was my communication while she was in a coma."
When asked by Schaap why Te'o didn't think to visit her, he says, "It never really crossed my mind. I don't know. I was in school. I was finishing up my year and I was going home. It was towards the end of my junior year. End of my junior year, and I was about to go home. When I decided to go home, the day that I decided to -- the day I left to go home -- they called me and said that that was the same day that they were going to pull the plug. And so it intensifies the whole thing. I'm on the plane. I figured they're about to pull the plug on someone ... All my focus went just to her, in caring for her. Making sure she was OK. Whenever you feel that you're about to lose somebody, you know, reality kicks in, and it's like, okay, I'm going to be here for her, take care of her. And so my focus turned straight to Lennay."
Te'o not only recounts pieces of the elaborate backstory he was fed, but also explains there was a seemingly endless array of photos; all of which convinced him Kekua was real.
Then, in early July, Te'o is told that Keuka has leukemia, which only intensifies his feelings for her. Throughout her treatment, Te'o constantly spoke to Keuka via phonecalls and online chats. Then, on September 12, Te'o's parents called to say his grandmother had passed away, hours later, Keuka called. "I had already found out that grandma is dead. I was angry. I didn't want to be bothered. So Lennay was just trying to be there for me. 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."
"Later that day I get a text message from her brother, just saying 'Bro. That was it.' I wondered why her brother was contacting me. Couple minutes later, I get the call from her brother. He's telling me, he's crying, screaming, and he's just telling me, 'She's gone! She's gone!' He's mumbling, 'She's gone, she's gone, bro', she's gone.' And I'm sitting there wondering who is gone? Why is he telling me that somebody's gone. Lennay's supposed to get home on September 11th, the day before. She was fine, you know? She was going home, she was fine. People were saying that she's getting better. I get a phone call that she's gone. They tell me Lennay's gone."
"I dropped the phone. I walk around the corner to get to the hall way where nobody is... I started crying and crying, punching the wall." Te'o adds, "Looking back on it now? I don't know. I really don't know. One, to lie about it, and two, to coordinate this death on the same day that I lost my grandmother, I don't know."
For those who believed Te'o created this entire scenario to garner sympathy in a big to win The Heisman Trophy, their biggest piece of evidence is that Te'o didn't attend Keuka's funeral. He tells ESPN the reason he didn't go was because her funeral fell on the same day as a big game. "Before Lennay passed away, we had a conversation where she asked me if she passed away, if I could go to her funeral? I told her no, I'm not going to talk like that. I'm not going to talk like that. She said tell me this, if anything happens, promise me that you'll send me white roses and say you'll play. She said all I want is white roses. And leading up to the funeral, her siblings kept telling me that their 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 lying in a coffin. That's why I didn't go."
Months pass, and Te'o begins dating a girl named Alex del Pilar. Then, on December 6, he gets a phonecall from Lennay's sister U'i. "She said, 'Hey, I've got to tell you something that's very important.' So she goes through this whole spiel how my family's involved with drugs and like bad people. And we have to hide and make sure that everybody's -- she's giving me this background about their life. She just basically said I think you know. And I said what do you mean? I don't know anything. She said, well, Manti, it's me. That's all she said."
"I eventually just gave up and said, who is me? And 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 September 12. I don't know who you are, but Lennay died on September 12th and that conversation ended."
Another fact detractors point to as evidence Te'o was complicit in the lie is that he continued to talk about Lennay in subsequent interviews as if she were real. Te'o cites his initial confusion as the reason behind those incidents.
Since then, Te'o has continued to speak with U'i and Ronaiah in a quest to find out the truth. However, once the story broke, Te'o says his been contacted by several people who were similarly duped by the duo. "Multiple people that he's done it to me contacted me ... and said hey, he's done the same thing to me with the same girl, with the same story. And if you need any help, I'm here."
Te'o, for one, is hoping this saga comes to a close much faster than I believe it will. As for what he'd like to see happen to his hoaxers, Te'o says, "To be honest with you, it doesn't seem real. I hope he learns. 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."
To read Manti Te'o's entire and all-encompassing interview with ESPN, click here.