(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. T
he 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 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’d 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.
Woman says her picture was part of hoax, though she didn’t know Te’o
One woman whose photos were part of the hoax says that she was exploited herself.
Donna Te’i told CNN earlier this week that she’d never talked to Te’o, nor did she have any involvement in the online plot involving the Notre Dame player and the woman he believed was his girlfriend.
But the 26-year-old woman is part of the story. She was identified in pictures linked to a Twitter account using the name uilanirae, which has since been taken down, as the sister of the apparently nonexistent girlfriend known as Lennay Kekua, according to Deadspin.
Donna Te’i acknowledged she was portrayed in the online images as Kekua’s sister, but not of her own accord. Her father, Luteru Lou Te’i — who spoke to CNN on Saturday, as his daughter was not at home — said these pictures were illicitly taken from the Facebook page of another of his daughters.
Donna Te’i herself met Ronaiah Tuiasosopo — the Samoan-American, like her, who Mantei Te’o said created the hoax — years ago through an acquaintance, and they came into contact again following the August death of her boyfriend, former University of Southern California football standout Fred Matua.
Mutua was eulogized by Ronaiah’s father, the Rev. Titus Tuiasosopo, according to Luteru Lou Te’i, who lives with his daughter in Carson, California.
At some point, pictures of Donna Te’i became part of the scheme. Luteru Lou Te’i, 51, said his daughter believes Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was responsible, since he called her later to apologize for using her image.
“I … don’t know what his motive was, but (Tuiasosopo) admitted to her that he did it,” said Luteru Lou Te’i, noting this conversation happened “way before the story broke.”
Donna Te’i has been “distraught” since Deadspin first ran with the story, according to her father.
Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and his family have not responded to CNN requests for comment on this and other allegations tied to the hoax.