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Manti Te'o admits to 'tailored' accounts in girlfriend hoax but denies being part of scheme

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

Notre Dame's Manti Te'o finally answered questions Friday night about the Lennay Kekua girlfriend hoax, saying in an exclusive interview with ESPN that he wasn't part of it – although he "tailored" his accounts of meeting the woman – and that the alleged mastermind of the hoax apologized to him.

The Fighting Irish linebacker and Heisman Trophy finalist at the center of a fake girlfriend controversy that has captivated the sports world for three days spoke to the network's Jeremy Schaap. Te'o gave the interview with a lawyer seated next to him in a conference room at the IMG Training Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he is preparing for the NFL draft. There were no TV cameras at the 2½-hour interview, which was recorded.

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Manti Te'o denies being in on the girlfriend hoax. (AP)

Although Te'o came to Notre Dame officials about the hoax in late December, he said a group of people connected to the perpetrators of the hoax showed up at the team hotel in the days leading up to the BCS championship game in Miami. ESPN initially reported during its broadcast that the incident didn't affect Te'o's performance in the championship game, which the Irish lost 42-14. A version of the report on ESPN.com, however, said Te'o told Schaap his play was impacted by the group showing up at the hotel. Those details were later removed from the story. Schaap told Y! Sports on Saturday morning that the discrepancy was caused by a typo made during the transcription of his interview with Te'o.

Before that encounter, Te'o said he got a call from someone claiming to be Kekua on Dec. 6, even though that was more than two months after her supposed death.

"I just got mad," Te'o said. "I went on a rampage … the Lennay I knew died on September 12."

Te'o denied using the hoax to bolster his Heisman candidacy.

"Well, when they 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."

Te'o said the relationship with the fake girlfriend began on Facebook. He admitted to lying to his father about having met Kekua, prompting his father to tell reporters that the two had met. Several media stories indicated that he and Kekua had met. Te'o insisted they never did.

[Related: Pictures of Te'o's fake girlfriend were of real woman]

Schaap reported there were "occasional contacts" over the following year, and Te'o said he contacted people who said they knew Kekua.

The relationship escalated after Notre Dame's game against Purdue in 2011. It got even more "intense," according to Schaap, on April 25 of last year when Te'o learned Kekua had been involved in a truck crash.

From April until September, Schaap reported, Te'o and Kekua were "inseparable" by phone. It did occur to Te'o that it was strange that they had never met. "I even thought it was crazy that I was with somebody I didn't meet," Schaap reported Te'o as saying.

Te'o admitted lying to his father, Brian, about the relationship, and confessed to embellishing details of their romance.

One of the most pressing questions over the last few days was why Te'o didn't visit the supposedly ailing Kekua in the hospital. Schaap posed that to Te'o, who said, "It never really crossed my mind. I don't know. I was in school."

Schaap said the interview was conducted without cameras because Te'o wanted the discussion to be in a "more intimate setting" and the lack of lights and cameras "probably made him more comfortable."

[Dr. Saturday: Too many questions left unanswered after Manti Te'o's interview]

Te'o told Schaap he still wasn't completely sure Kekua was fake until Wednesday, when Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the reported mastermind behind the hoax, called him to confess and apologize.

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Manti Te'o opened up to ESPN in an exclusive interview Friday. (AP/ESPN Images)

"This person, whoever it was, made an emotional connection that drew him in," Schaap said.

Te'o met Tuiasosopo for the first and only time when Notre Dame played USC in 2012. He thought he was meeting one of Kekua's sisters, but Tuiasosopo showed up with a child who Te'o thought was Kekua's niece.

Te'o told Schaap he tried to speak with Kekua via Skype and FaceTime on numerous occasions, but the person at the other end of the line was in what he called a "black box."

Schaap said Te'o showed him documentation of online exchanges between himself and Kekua, and called Te'o "very convincing." However, he also said Te'o was "utterly confused" by the ordeal.

Te'o did take issue with one part of the Deadspin.com story that revealed the hoax, a point that alleged a source was "80 percent sure" Te'o was involved in the hoax. Te'o strongly denied this, saying he "never" was part of the ruse.

Te'o said he "catered" his stories so people would think he "met her before she passed away."

[Related: Where does the Manti Te'o girlfriend story rank among sports hoaxes?

"I knew that – I even knew that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn't meet," he said. "And that alone people find out that this girl who died I was so invested in, and I didn't meet her as well."

Te'o was asked what he thought should happen to Tuiasosopo.

"I hope he learns," Te'o said. "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."

He added: "Two guys and a girl are responsible for the whole thing." Asked who they are, he said: "I don't know. According to Ronaiah, Ronaiah's one."

Te'o also shed light on the events of Sept. 12, the day his grandmother died.

"[Me and Lennay] got in an argument. She was saying, you know, I'm trying to be here for you. I didn't want to be bothered. I wanted to be left alone. I just wanted to be by myself.

"Last thing she told me was 'Just know I love you.' "

Later that day, Te'o was informed Kekua had died.

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Manti Te'o says the hoax influenced his play in the BCS title game against Alabama. (USA Today Sports)

On Wednesday, Deadspin broke the story that Te'o's girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, did not exist. That story set off a national wave of questions, as Kekua's supposed death from leukemia had been a major storyline in Te'o's Heisman campaign and Notre Dame's run to the BCS championship game.

Te'o released a statement Wednesday evening, saying he was the victim of a hoax. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick followed that with a news conference, announcing Te'o had come to school representatives in late December with the suspicion that someone pretending to be Kekua had duped him.

Swarbrick deferred to Te'o to answer specifics about the relationship, and reporters gathered at the IMG Academy. Thursday came and went without any word from Te'o as speculation grew about when he would break his silence. Then, Friday evening after 10 p.m. ET, an ESPN PR representative tweeted that Schaap was speaking with Te'o without cameras recording the interview.

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