Updated at: 01/20/2013 12:37 PM
By RALPH D. RUSSO
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o tried to clear the air about how he fell into an online relationship with a fictitious woman he met online who called herself Lennay Kekua. His grief at her "death" became a major story during the college football season. The problem was Kekua was a hoax _ there was no such person.
Te’o spoke to ESPN for 2 1/2 hours on Friday evening at an IMG training facility in Florida where he is training for the NFL draft.
In question-and-answer form, these are some highlights of the way events unfolded, according to Te’o:
Q: WHEN DID TE’O’S ONLINE "RELATIONSHIP" WITH THE FAKE WOMAN BEGIN AND HOW DID IT DEVELOP?
A: Te’o says he received a Facebook friend request from Kekua in early 2010, his freshman year at Notre Dame. They were in contact on and off over the next couple of years and, as Te’o describes it, it naturally progressed until they started to get very close last April. At that time, Te’o was told by a person portraying Kekua’s brother, that Lennay had been in a serious car accident. In the wake of that twist, Te’o began to talk to the girl much more frequently. He became hugely invested in her and was then told she had leukemia.
Kekua "died" on Sept. 12, the same day Te’o’s real grandmother died. Te’o said he was grief-stricken and had a testy conversation with Kekua, then _ hours later _ the pranksters called and said his girlfriend was dead.
Q: SO TE’O NEVER SAW LENNAY KEKUA IN THE FLESH?
A: That’s right. They had planned to meet up one time in San Diego during a long layover he had on his way home to Hawaii. That never happened because on April 28, Te’o says he was told, she got into a serious car accident. Te’o said he was told the accident put Kekua into a coma, and when she came out her recovery from serious injuries drew them closer. He started talking to a woman portraying Kekua every day.
He said before he returned from Hawaii to South Bend for preseason practice he had planned to meet up with her on California, but he had to cancel this time to attend a family reunion in Utah.
Te’o claims they tried to make video phone calls using Skype and FaceTime, but he said he could never see her face. She would say she could see him and tease him about being able to use the technology correctly.
Q: WAS TE’O IN ON THE SCAM?
A: He says no. Skeptics contend that his story is so fantastic it’s hard to believe, that he couldn’t be so gullible to have been fooled by the scam. Yet no one has come forward with hard evidence that pins down Te’o as being a participant. In the lengthy and detailed story by Deadspin.com that broke the news of the hoax, the strongest accusation that Te’o was one of the perpetrators was an unidentified friend of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the alleged mastermind of the prank, telling Deadspin he was "80 percent sure" that Manti Te’o was "in on it."
Q: THROUGHOUT THE SEASON, THOUGH, TE’O SPOKE ABOUT HIS DEAD GIRLFRIEND AS IF SHE WE A LIVING PERSON. HOW DOES HE EXPLAIN THAT?
A: This is where it gets complicated. Te’o says he thought his girlfriend was real, but when she died _ and word got out that he was playing through the deaths of both his grandmother and girlfriend _ he was embarrassed that he had only ever had contact with Kekua online and by phone. Already, he had lied to his father and told him that he had seen Kekua.
So, in Te’o’s words, "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, and 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 people wouldn’t think that I was some crazy dude."
Q: HOW DID THE SCHEME UNRAVEL?
A: Te’o received a phone call on Dec. 6 from the Kekua’s phone number. On the line was a woman who sounded like Kekua. He says he was confused, and thought it was one of her sisters. The woman was telling him a story about having to fake her death to evade drug dealers but not directly identifying herself. Te’o said "She kept going back and forth. `It’s me.’
"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 Sept. 12. I don’t know who you are, but Lennay died on Sept. 12th,’ and that conversation ended."
Te’o said he didn’t know what to think at that point and her continued to refer to Lennay as his "girlfriend." The woman contacted him again and the tales got even more confusing. He says he didn’t think that Lennay wasn’t real, he thought she might still be alive but that she was possibly toying with him.
He told his mother on Christmas Eve what was going on and his father on Christmas Day, and on Dec. 26th he told Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. Within days, Notre Dame ordered an investigation.
Te’o told ESPN that not until the news broke earlier this week, and Tuiasosopo contacted him to apologize, did he finally realize Kekua wasn’t real and the whole thing was a hoax.
Q: HOW ELABORATE WAS THE SCHEME?
A: Very, according to Te’o. The pranksters used multiple characters, they sent photos of the flowers Te’o sent for Lennay’s "funeral" to him to show they arrived. Te’o claims they became agitated when he began to see another girl at Notre Dame in December, and a woman claiming to be Lennay’s sister called Te’o’s mother to complain about it.
Lennay had a large extended family, Te’o says he was told, including a young relative, a 9-year-old girl named Pookah. Te’o met her face-to-face, along with Tuiasosopo, when Notre Dame was in California in November to play USC.
Q: SO, IF IT WASN’T TE’O, WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE HOAX?
The Deadspin story pointed to Tuiasosopo as being most involved, and Te’o said that the 22-year-old contacted him on Jan. 16 to apologize.
Te’o said the message went like this: "I have two people that I want to come clean with and that’s you and your family. I’m not going to say anything to the press. I just want you to know the truth. And God bless, and blah, blah, blah."
Tuiasosopo has not yet spoken publicly about the situation.
Q: WHAT NEXT?
A: It seems no laws were broken, and Te’o has given no indication he wants to pursue a civil suit against the pranksters. Unless someone comes forward to refute Te’o’s claims, or new evidence is unearthed contradicting what he has said, the next people he’ll need to answer to are NFL coaches and executives.
Te’o will likely attend the combine in February and there he will start doing job interviews with prospective new employers. He has been projected as a potential high first-round pick. The first round is held the night of April 25 in New York City.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)