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In TV interview, Te’o defends innocence

Andrew Owens | Friday, January 25, 2013

In his first on-camera interview since the controversy surrounding the fake life of Lennay Kekua broke eight days ago, former Irish linebacker Manti Te’o maintained his innocence with his parents beside him Thursday on television host Katie Couric’s syndicated talk show.

“The hardest part of this experience is seeing my family go through it because of something I did,” Te’o said. “The greatest joy in any child’s life is to make your parents proud. The greatest pain is to know they’re experiencing pain because of you.”

In the hour-long program, Te’o defended his innocence in the hoax supposedly perpetrated by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, however he did admit to misleading people about his relationship with Kekua, most notably the fact they had never met.

“I wasn’t as forthcoming about it, but I didn’t lie,” he said. “I was never asked ‘Did you see her in person.’ That embarrassment [of not meeting her] … scared me.”

Despite having never seen Kekua in person, Te’o said his emotions were genuine following her reported death Sept. 12.

“What I went through was real,” said Te’o, who said he did not know if the personal tragedy aided him in his second-place Heisman trophy finish. “The feelings, the pain, the sorrow. It was real. That’s something I can’t fake.”

Te’o provided voice messages to Couric that he claimed came from who he thought was Kekua. Those messages were aired on the show Thursday. The New York Daily News reported earlier in the day that Tuiasosopo’s lawyer told the newspaper that his client was the voice behind Kekua.

Te’o rejected the notion that he and Tuiasosopo are close and concocted the hoax together.

“Previous to [Tuiasosopo's confession of his involvement] I had only talked to Ronaiah twice,” Te’o said. “He was to my understanding, Lennay’s cousin – her favorite cousin.”

When asked by Couric if he is gay, Te’o said he is “far from it,” and that he had developed a deep emotional bond with Kekua without ever meeting her.

“She was Polynesian supposedly,” Te’o said. “She was Samoan. She knew a lot about – I’m Mormon and she knew a lot about that. … They knew my standards and my culture.

“I found a lot of peace and a lot of comfort being able to talk to somebody and she knew my standards and culture.”

In advance of the interview’s airing, Couric appeared on ABC’s “Nightline” Wednesday evening and said she found Te’o to be convincing.

“I do think that his affection for this young woman was very real,” Couric said. “I think the relationship was very real. I think that the pain he endured when he was told she had died was very real.

“He would keep the phone on at night and wake up with the phone at his ear in the morning. It’s strange, believe me, but I think it happened.”

In early December, when Te’o claims he first heard from whom he thought was Kekua, he said he continued to speak of her death in media interviews because he was still trying to process the information himself and that it was not until he received a timestamped photo of a girl posing as Kekua on Dec. 21 that he was convinced she was alive.

“Part of me was saying, if you say that she is alive, what would everybody think,” Te’o said of his reason not to make the matter public at the Dec. 8 Heisman trophy media availability.

His mother, Ottilia Te’o, said it “hurts” to see her son’s name dragged through the mud by people who doubt his innocence in the hoax.

“That’s my child out there. That’s my child in my eyes who always puts others before himself,” she said. “I am proud of his character. It just hurts to see his picture and his name being displayed as someone who is dishonest.”

Te’o, who has been training for the NFL Draft in Bradenton, Fla., said the past few weeks have taken a toll on him.

“It’s been hard. It’s been difficult,” he said. “Not only for myself but to see your last name and just to see it flash everywhere and to know that I represent so many people and my family’s experiencing the same thing. That’s what was so hard for me.”