NEW YORK (AP) - Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o insisted he had no role in the bizarre hoax involving his “dead” girlfriend and told ESPN on Friday night that he was duped by a person who has since apologized to him.
In an off-camera interview Friday with ESPN, Te'o said Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a 22-year-old acquaintance who lives in California, contacted him two days ago and confessed to the prank. Deadspin.com first exposed the scheme on Wednesday and indicated Tuiasosopo was involved in it.
“I wasn’t faking it,” ESPN quoted Te'o as saying during the 2 1-2 hour interview. “I wasn’t part of this. When they hear the facts they’ll know. They’ll know there is no way I could be a part of this.”
Te'o said he first met Tuiasosopo in person after the Southern California game in November. According to the linebacker, Tuiasosopo told him he was the cousin of Lennay Kekua, the woman who Te'o believed he had fallen for through Internet chats and long phone conversations. But Kekua never existed.
The Tuiasosopo family has declined several interview requests from The Associated Press since Wednesday.
After he was told Kekua had died of leukemia in early September, Te'o admitted he misled the public about the nature of the “relationship” because he was uncomfortable saying it was purely an electronic romance.
“That goes back to what I did with my dad. I knew that. I even knew that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn’t meet,” he said. “So I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away.”
Te'o’s first interview since the story broke came at the end of a day that started with Notre Dame posting a podcast of athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s radio show, during which he implored the Heisman Trophy runner-up to speak publicly about the episode. Already, it had turned the feel-good story line of the college football season into a dark and strange one.
Te'o took Notre Dame’s advice, but this was no Lance Armstrong-with-Oprah Winfrey made for TV mea culpa.
ESPN conducted the interview with Te'o at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where Te'o is preparing for the NFL draft and hopes to be among the first-round picks. The network produced only still photos of the interview, with reporter Jeremy Schaap sitting at large table with the linebacker. Schaap then provided details on “Sports Center” and a story was posted on ESPN.com.
Some wondered whether Te'o had been in on the fake girlfriend scheme to gain positive publicity and attention. Te'o quickly became the media focal point for Notre Dame as the Fighting Irish pulled off an unexpected 12-0 regular season, finally losing in the BCS championship to Alabama, 42-14.
Schaap said Te'o firmly denied he was out to get attention. The player also said the hoax also did not affect his performance in the title game blowout.