He had wanted to help someone in need, this beautiful girl who had been through so much. And he ended up falling for her. They had much in common — a strong faith, their Samoan heritage, common values — and clicked, even though they’d never met face-to-face.
Their relationship ended, the first time, in September when Manti Te’o got a call from her hysterical brother telling him the woman he knew as Lennay Kekua had died, one day after leaving the hospital where she was being treated for leukemia.
Two months later, the relationship unraveled again, this time when he got another call from someone who claimed she was Lennay, very much alive.
In the weeks to follow — until and after Deadspin broke the story January 16 that Lennay Kekua didn’t exist, despite Te’o’s repeated references to her and her death in interviews — the Notre Dame star player admitted feeling embarrassed, scared and overwhelmed.
In his first on-camera interview since then, Te’o said that, publicly, he’d always been truthful.
“For people feeling that they were misled, that I’m sorry for,” he told Katie Couric, on an episode of her talk show that aired Thursday. “I wasn’t as forthcoming about it (as I could have been).
“But I didn’t lie.”
Then why, Couric asked, had he said the two met through his cousin and at a game his sophomore year, when he now says she had reached out to him on Facebook? Why had he told his father that he and Kekua had gotten together once in Hawaii?
And why hadn’t he had stronger doubts before this winter? Like how, in their FaceTime chats, her screen always appeared black? Or how every in-person meeting they set up fell through, like when she was hospitalized or the time her brother had borrowed her car?
Or how odd was it that, in the months he’d gotten to know her well, a 22-year-old woman had a near-death accident then came down with cancer? And through all her struggles, why didn’t he visit her once in the hospital — even when he was in Southern California, like her, and she was in a coma?
Te’o said he understands why people might doubt their relationship, and him. But he told Couric that his feelings in the relationship — and after the supposed death — were authentic.
“What I went through was real. The feelings, the pain, the sorrow … that was all real,” said the standout linebacker and Heisman runner-up. “That’s something I can’t fake.”