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Manti Te’o

Manti Te’o’s ascendancy to national star and Heisman Trophy candidate was jet-propelled by the personal backdrop of a girlfriend tragically lost to leukemia in September.

Except that girlfriend never existed.

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The woman whose image was used in the fake girlfriend hoax involving Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o is speaking out for the first time.

(CNN) — Manti Te’o — one of the best defenders this season in college football — defended himself in an ESPN interview, saying there was no way he was part of a hoax involving a deceased girlfriend.

“I wasn’t faking it,” Te’o told ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap in an off -camera interview highlighted on the network Friday night. “I wasn’t part of this.”

For days, the linebacker has been the subject of ridicule after reports surfaced that the girlfriend he’d said died this fall of leukemia never existed.

Te’o rose to national prominence by leading Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish to an undefeated regular season, amassing double-digit tackle games and becoming the face of one of the best defenses in the nation.

As he and his team excelled, Te’o told interviewers in September and October that his grandmother and girlfriend — whom he described as a 22-year-old Stanford University student — had died within hours of each other.

The twin losses inspired him to honor them with sterling play on the field, Te’o said. He led his team to a 20-3 routing of Michigan State after he heard the news.

“I miss ‘em, but I know that I’ll see them again one day,” he told ESPN.

He was second in the Heisman Trophy race and led his team to the championship game, losing to Alabama.

The fairy tale story ended Wednesday when sports website Deadspin published a piece dismissing as a hoax the existence of Te’o’s girlfriend and suggesting he was complicit.

Te’o released a statement Wednesday saying he was a victim of a hoax, but Friday night was the first time he publicly addressed the issue.

“When (people) hear the facts, they’ll know,” Te’o told ESPN. “They’ll know that there is no way that I could be part of this.”

After a 2½-hour interview, veteran sports reporter Schaap said Te’o’s story sounded convincing.

“He made a very convincing witness to his defense,” Schapp said on ESPN. “He answered all my questions pretty convincingly. If he is making up his side of the story, he is a very convincing actor.”

The twisted tale of Te’o and the mystery woman named Lennay Kekua has left many with questions.

Te’o sought to answer many of them Friday night.

Who created the hoax?

Te’o told Schaap that the hoax was created by a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and that Te’o had no role in creating the hoax.

He said Tuiasosopo contacted him Wednesday via Twitter and explained that he created the hoax and he apologized, Schaap said. Tuiasosopo told Te’o he created the hoax along with another man and a woman, ESPN reported. CNN has not seen the tweets Te’o allegedly got from Tuiasosopo.

“Two guys and a girl are responsible for the whole thing,” Te’o said, according to ESPN.

CNN went to the California home of Tuiasosopo, where Titus Tuiasosopo, Ronaiah’s father, declined to comment.

“But just wait, (the truth) will all come out,” he said. “God knows our character. People are going to say what people are going to say.”

Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was named in the Deadspin article.

Notre Dame’s investigation into the matter confirmed that two men and a woman, including Tuiasosopo, were behind the hoax, a source with knowledge of the matter told CNN. The source requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

A woman pretending to be Kekua called Te’o last month, claiming she had faked her death last fall because she was afraid of drug dealers, the source said.

Following that December 6 conversation, Te’o went to his coaches with the story, which spurred Notre Dame to hire outside investigators to look into it. The investigation began the day after Christmas, and the results were presented January 4, days before the national championship game that Te’o’s team lost.

Why did relatives say they had met her?

In September and October, when the story of Te’o and his girlfriend received a lot of press press attention, several stories appeared about how they met. One in October by Indiana’s South Bend Tribune, the newspaper of Notre Dame’s hometown, said the couple met at a football game in Palo Alto, California, in 2009.

Te’o’s father was quoted in the article saying they exchanged phone numbers and a love affair began.

On Friday, Te’o said he lied to his father about meeting Kekua because he was embarrassed to tell his family he was in love with a woman he never met.

“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.”

The lie he told his father led his family to tell reporters that Te’o had met his girlfriend, he told ESPN.

The calls from the woman continued after December 6, but Te’o did not answer, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told reporters this week.

At that point, Te’o confided in his parents and at least two friends and a girlfriend he had at the time about the calls, the source with knowledge of the matter told CNN. He and the “real” girlfriend have since ended that relationship.

The Heisman Trophy was awarded December 8, and Te’o continued to make comments about losing his girlfriend.

In the ESPN interview, Te’o said he wasn’t fully convinced it was a hoax until Wednesday, Schaap said.

 

By Lateef Mungin and Greg Botelho

CNN’s Susan Candiotti, Ross Levitt, Phil Gast and Amanda Watts contributed to this report.

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™ & © 2013 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved

BCS National Title Game

Manti Te’o (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune)

SOUTH BEND, Indiana-

In a little more than three months, Manti Te’o probably will be drafted by an NFL team and sign a multimillion dollar deal.

Before teams sink that much money into players, they have questions.

With the revelation that the football feel-good story of the year centered on the Notre Dame linebacker’s love for a woman who never existed, many people have questions for Te’o — a lot of questions.

And as each question in the saga gets answered — none publicly by Te’o — it seems another one, or two, or three, crop up.

One for instance: Who is now behind the one of the Twitter accounts associated with Lennay Kekua, a woman who apparently never lived, let alone die in September before Te’o, who called her his girlfriend, played one of the biggest games of the young season?

A tweet Thursday purportedly from the fictional girlfriend promised she would have a big announcement that would help sort out details of the story, but the tweet was merely a joke about Te’o.

Two other tweets on the page were retweets from the verified account of Te’o.

“@LennayKay I miss you!” a November 6 tweet from Te’o said.

On September 12, Te’o tweeted “@LennayKay you will always be with me wherever I go!”

It was unclear Thursday whether the person Te’o tweeted to in September used it again after reports broke of a hoax or whether someone created a new account with the same user name.

The airing of the bizarre story began Wednesday, when sports website Deadspin published a piece dismissing as a hoax the existence of Te’o’s girlfriend — the one who he said died around the same time as his grandmother while his team marched toward the BCS National Championship Game.

Then Wednesday, the university held a press conference saying Te’o was the victim of a “elaborate hoax.” And Te’o, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, released a statement saying he was embarrassed that he was the victim of a “sick joke.”

The bizarre developments left many wondering if they, instead of Te’o, were led on.

“Te’o’s story that he is completely innocent in this does not really ring true to us,” Timothy Burke, co-author of the Deadspin article, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday night.

The hoax

The story of the girlfriend came to light in September as Notre Dame continued its improbable undefeated season and Te’o, a relentless tackler, was beginning to emerge as a front-runner for the prestigous Heisman Trophy.

He led the Fighting Irish, amassing double-digit tackle games and becoming the face of one of the best defenses in the nation.

In September and October, Te’o told interviewers that his girlfriend and grandmother had died within hours of each other. The girlfriend, a 22-year-old Stanford University student, died of leukemia, he said.

The twin losses inspired him to honor them with sterling play on the field, Te’o said. He led his team to a 20-3 routing of Michigan State after he heard the news.

“I miss ‘em, but I know that I’ll see them again one day,” he told ESPN.

It was indeed a gripping interest story of determination. And the media ran with it.

No one bothered to seek out Kekua’s family until Deadspin, acting on an anonymous e-mail received last week, started poking around.

“What do you do when you first want to know something? You Google it, right?” Burke said on CNN. “And Google searches for ‘Lennay Kekua’ only showed up articles about her dying, and inspiring Mant’i Teo.

“There’s no evidence of her existing in any way, other than, you know, after she had allegedly died. And we thought that was a little weird.”

Te’o’s grandmother died in September, Deadspin said.

But there was no Social Security Administration record of Kekua’s death. The Birth and Death Registration office in Orange County, California, told CNN it had no record of Kekua nor does the county coroner.

Deadspin called mortuaries and funeral homes in Carson, California, where Kekua was reportedly buried — but came up empty.

The website sought out the person whose picture had been presented as that of Kekua and tracked her down.

She was alive, didn’t have leukemia and had never met Te’o.

“That sort of opened everything up,” Burke said.

The revelation prompted the Notre Dame athletics director to call a news conference Wednesday. There was no way for Te’o to know the relationship was a hoax because it had been conducted strictly online and on the phone, said director Jack Swarbrick.

The pair had set up several meetings, including in Hawaii, where Te’o grew up — but Kekua never showed, Swarbrick said.

The university said it did not know how many people were in on the ruse.

According to Swarbrick, Te’o received a call from a woman claiming to be his girlfriend in December, telling him she was not dead. Those calls continued, but Te’o did not answer, he said.

The Stanford University registrar’s office told CNN that it has never had a student registered in Kekua’s name or using an alternate spelling.

“Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed,” Deadspin contends. “There was no Lennay Kekua.”

Her ‘soulful eyes’

So, how did the two fall in love?

According to the South Bend Tribune in Indiana — the newspaper of Notre Dame’s hometown, the two met — yes, met — after a football game in Palo Alto, California, in 2009.

“Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te’o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes,” the paper gushed. “They could have just as easily brushed past each other and into separate sunsets. Te’o had plenty to preoccupy himself that November weekend in Palo Alto, Calif., back in 2009.”

The article went on to say: “Lennay Kekua was a Stanford student and Cardinal football fan when the two exchanged glances, handshakes and phone numbers that fateful weekend three seasons ago.”

Te’o’s father, Brian, was quoted in the article: “They started out as just friends. Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there. But within the last year, they became a couple.”

Media reports indicate the parents never met Kekua.

The newspaper said Wednesday it based Teo’s story on information from the linebacker, his family members and coaches — and moved the story to its archives.

Te’o tried to clear things up with a statement Wednesday saying he “developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online.”

“We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her,” he said in the statement.

“To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating,” the statement continued. “It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother’s death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life.”

Will the real Kekua please stand up?

Late Wednesday, the story took another twist when ESPN found an NFL player who said he knew Kekua. The player, Reagan Mauia, a free agent, told the sports network that he and Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu met her.

“This was before her and Manti,” Mauia told ESPN. “I don’t think Manti was even in the picture, but she and I became good friends. We would talk off and on, just checking up on each other kind of thing. I am close to her family.”

By Lateef Mungin

CNN’s Steve Almasy, Phil Gast and Amanda Watts contributed to this report.

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™ & ©2013 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

BCS National Title Game

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o fights his emotions as he leaves the field after a 42-14 loss against Alabama in the BCS National Championship game. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune)

SOUTH BEND, Indiana-

Manti Te’o’s ascendancy to national star and Heisman Trophy candidate was jet-propelled by the personal backdrop of a girlfriend tragically lost to leukemia in September.

Except that girlfriend never existed.

And so the former Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman runner-up has plunged into a morass of controversy and confusion, with a Deadspin story reporting that the woman known as Lennay Kekua was a hoax – and Notre Dame confirming that later Thursday in an official statement.

“On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te’o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia,” the school’s statement read.

“The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.”

It was the week of the Michigan State game in September in which the story unfolded: Te’o lost his grandmother, Annette Santiago, and then Kekua, his purported girlfriend, in a 48-hour span.

That double-loss vaulted Te’o on to the cover of Sports Illustrated and, along with Notre Dame’s eventual undefeated regular season, into the Heisman Trophy mix. Te’o would finish second in that voting to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, tying for the best finish ever by a pure defender.

By Brian Hamilton/Chicago Tribune

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