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Manti Te’o Addresses Girlfriend Death Hoax: “I Wasn’t Faking It”

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Manti Te'o at the Joyce Center on November 29, 2012 in South Bend, Indiana. 

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o has denied all involvement in creating the hoax that had him mourning the loss of what turned out to be a fictional girlfriend, Lennay Kekua.

Te'o addressed the scandal for the first time since Deadspin first reported Kekua never existed. During his 150-minute, off-camera interview with ESPN Friday, Jan. 18, Te'o — with his lawyer present — said he's confident the public will be on his side. "When they hear the facts, they'll know," he told the network's Jeremy Schaap. "They'll know that there is no way that I could be a part of this."

"I wasn't faking it," the 21-year-old athlete added.

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Te'o said he feared people would think it was crazy for him to date someone he never met, which is why he lied. "I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away," Te'o explained.

Their "courtship" began via Facebook during Teo's freshman year of college. "My relationship with Lennay wasn't a four-year relationship," Te'o revealed. "There were blocks and times and periods in which we would talk and then it would end."

Proposed meetings in L.A. and Hawaii never came to fruition because Kekua would cancel at the last minute or send others in her place, Te'o explained. At one point, he said, "She told me her dad passed away, and I was there. I was that shoulder to cry on. And I kind of just naturally cared for the person. And so our relationship kind of took another level. But not the kind of exclusive level yet."

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But even after he was told that Kekua was battling leukemia, the football player didn't attempt to visit her. "It never really crossed my mind," he said. "I don't know. I was in school."

When Kekua "passed away" on Sept. 11, 2012 — the same day as Te'o's grandmother, Annette Santiago — the athlete was devastated. In spite of his grief, he helped leading the Fighting Irish to an undefeated season and became an inspiration to millions of fans.

But on Dec. 6, Te'o said he got a call from Kekua saying she was alive. Confused, he kept quiet because he felt uncomfortable admitting he had never met his "girlfriend" in person. He confided in his family and Notre Dame officials in late December, and the school then launched an investigation. Te'o didn't know he had been the victim of a hoax for certain until Wednesday, Jan. 16, when he received a Twitter direct message from Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.

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Tuiasosopo admitted to being the perpetrator, along with one other man and a woman. "Two guys and a girl are responsible for the whole thing," Te'o said. Asked who they are, he replied: "I don't know. According to Ronaiah, Ronaiah's one."

When asked what should happen to Tuiasosopo, Te'o replied, "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."

Te'o added, "I'll be OK. As long as my family's OK, I'll be fine."

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