“What I went through was real. The pain, the sorrow … that was all real,” Te’o told Katie Couric on an episode of her talk show, which aired Thursday. “That’s something I can’t fake.”
Te’o had been one of the most admired figures in college football, leading Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the national title game, while finishing second in the Heisman Trophy race as the season’s most valuable player.
Off the field, he had a compelling personal story in the form of his heartwrenching account about losing his grandmother and girlfriend on the same day, then using their deaths as inspiration on the field.
But on January 16, hours after the sports website Deadspin broke the story, Te’o acknowledged in a brief statement that there was no girlfriend. She had been sustained through Internet communication and phone calls, but they never had any face-to-face encounters.
While insisting he was the victim of the hoax, Te’o admittedly played a part in propagating this story, from telling his father that he’d met the woman once in Hawaii to telling reporters about their relationship.
In his interview on “Katie,” Te’o acknowledged missteps in talking about his girlfriend, whom he knew as Lennay Kekua.
But he insisted adamantly that he had no part in the hoax. In his public statements, according to the athlete, he never outright lied or expressly talked about meeting Kekua in person.
“For people feeling that they were misled, that I’m sorry for,” the Fighting Irish star said. “I wasn’t as forthcoming about it, but I didn’t lie.”
On December 6, Te’o said he was shocked to get a phone call telling him that the girlfriend, who he’d insisted had died in September of leukemia, was in fact alive.
Two days later, during the Heisman Trophy presentation, Te’o talked on national television about losing “both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer.”
In his interview with Couric, Te’o admitted that he had serious doubts then about Kekua, but “at the same time, I didn’t know it was somebody’s prank.”
“What would you do?” he said. “I, my whole world told me that she died on September 12. Everybody knew that. … Now I get a phone call on December 6 saying that she’s alive.”
Te’o denied reveling in the attention he received for playing so well on the gridiron after suffering such devastating personal losses.
“I think, for me, the only thing that I basked in was that I had an impact on people; that people turned to me for inspiration. And I think that was the only thing I focused on,” the Hawaii-born Mormon said. “My story, I felt, was a guy who in times of hardship and in times of trial, held strong to his faith, held strong to his family, and I felt that was my story.”