(Reuters) - Notre Dame football star Manti Te‘o has denied ever being in on an elaborate hoax, telling ESPN he had believed his relationship with a woman who turned out to be an online fabrication was real.
The tragic story of his girlfriend and her injuries from a car accident and death from leukaemia was one of the most widely recounted U.S. sports stories last year as Notre Dame made a drive toward the national championship game.
“I wasn’t faking it,” Te‘o told ESPN in an off-camera interview on Friday, excerpts of which were posted on ESPN.com. “I wasn’t part of this.”
When asked whether he had made up the tale to support his chances of winning the Heisman Trophy, the highest individual honour for a college football player, Te‘o replied: “Well, when they hear the facts they’ll know. They’ll know that there is no way that I could be part of this.”
The interview was Te‘o’s first since the sports blog Deadspin.com on Wednesday exposed the heart-wrenching tale of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, and her death as a hoax and that a friend of Te‘o’s named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was behind it.
Te‘o told ESPN that Tuiasosopo called him on Wednesday and admitted he was behind the hoax and it was then Te‘o was sure the woman had never existed.
“I don’t wish an ill thing to somebody,” Te‘o said of Tuiasosopo, according to ESPN. “I just hope he learns. I think embarrassment is big enough.”
Outside Tuiasosopo’s home in Palmdale, California, on Thursday, a member of his family who did not identify himself told reporters they had no comment.
Te‘o acknowledged in a statement on Wednesday that he had never met the woman in person, though he considered her his girlfriend and said he had been duped.
In the ESPN interview, Te‘o said he tried to video chat with her several times, but she could never be seen on the other end. He also said he intentionally told people stories about her in a way that would make people believe they had met in person.
“I even knew that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn’t meet,” Te‘o said.
ESPN said the interview was held at a training facility in Florida where Te‘o has been preparing for the National Football League draft. The star linebacker was expected to be a high draft pick before the hoax was revealed.
Te‘o sprang to national prominence last fall when he led Notre Dame to a victory over Michigan State within days of learning his grandmother and girlfriend had both died. The grandmother’s death was real.
The story grew to become a big feature in coverage of the team, which went undefeated in the regular season and reached the national championship game. Alabama defeated Notre Dame in the title game on January 7.
Notre Dame, one of the most powerful institutions in U.S. collegiate athletics, held a news conference within hours of the Deadspin.com article to say that Te‘o had been duped.
Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said on Friday the Indiana university was comfortable, based on a private investigation it launched and on four years experience with Te‘o, that he was the victim and encouraged Te‘o to speak publicly.
Reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis; Editing by Eric Beech