By Lateef Mungin and Greg Botelho
(CNN) — Manti Te’o — one of the best defenders this season in college football — defended himself in an ESPN interview Friday night, saying there was no way he was part of a hoax involving a deceased girlfriend.
“I wasn’t faking it,” he told ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap in an off -camera interview highlighted on the network. “I wasn’t part of this.”
For the past few days, the former Notre Dame linebacker has been the subject of ridicule after reports surfaced that the girlfriend he’d gushed about and said died this fall of leukemia never existed.
Te’o rose to national prominence by leading the Fighting Irish to an undefeated regular season, amassing double-digit tackle games and becoming the face of one of the best defenses in the nation.
As he and his team excelled, Te’o told interviewers in September and October that his grandmother and girlfriend — whom he described as a 22-year-old Stanford University student — had died within hours of each other.
The twin losses inspired him to honor them with sterling play on the field, Te’o said. He led his team to a 20-3 routing of Michigan State after he heard the news.
“I miss ’em, but I know that I’ll see them again one day,” he told ESPN.
He was second in the Heisman race and led his team to the championship game, losing to Alabama.
The fairy tale story ended on Wednesday when sports website Deadspin published a piece dismissing as a hoax the existence of Te’o’s girlfriend and suggesting he was complicit.
Te’o released a statement on Wednesday saying he was a victim of a hoax but Friday night was the first time he publicly addressed the issue.
“When (people) 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.”
After a two-and-a-half hour interview, veteran sports reporter Schaap said Te’o’s story sounded convincing.
“He made a very convincing witness to his defense,” Schapp said on ESPN. “He answered all my questions pretty convincingly. If he is making up his side of the story, he is a very convincing actor.”
The twisted tale of the Heisman Trophy runner-up and the mystery woman named Lennay Kekua has left many with questions.
Te’o sought to answer many of them Friday night.
Who created the hoax?
Te’o told Schaap that the hoax was created by a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and that Te’o had no role in creating the hoax.
He said Tuiasosopo contacted him Wednesday via Twitter and explained that he created the hoax and he apologized, Schaap said. Tuiasosopo told Te’o he created the hoax along with another man and a woman, ESPN reported. CNN has not seen the tweets Te’o allegedly got from Tuiasosopo.
“Two guys and a girl are responsible for the whole thing,” Te’o said, according to ESPN.
CNN has been to the California home of Tuiasosopo, but could not get a response to the accusations.
Tuiasosopo was also named in Wednesday’s Deadspin article. That article implied that both Te’o and Tuiasosopo perpetuated the hoax.
Notre Dame’s own investigation into the matter confirmed that two men and a woman, including Tuiasosopo, were behind the hoax, a source with knowledge of the matter told CNN.
The woman pretending to be Kekua called Te’o last month, claiming she had faked her death last fall because she was afraid of drug dealers, the source said.
Following that December 6 conversation, Te’o went to his coaches with the story, which spurred Notre Dame to hire outside investigators to look into it. The investigation began the day after Christmas, and the results were presented on January 4, just days before the national championship game where Te’o’s team would be defeated.
Why did relatives say they had met her?
In September and October, when the story of Te’o and his girlfriend was getting a lot of press, there were several vivid stories about how they met. There was one published in October by South Bend Tribune in Indiana, the newspaper of Notre Dame’s hometown, that said the couple met at a football game in Palo Alto, California, in 2009.
Te’o’s father is quoted in the article that gushed about them shaking hands, exchanging phone numbers and sparking a love affair.
On Friday,Te’o said he lied to his father about meeting Kekua because he was embarrassed to tell his family that he was in love with a woman he never met.
“I knew that — I even knew that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn’t meet,” he told ESPN. “And that alone, people find out that this girl who died I was so invested in, and I didn’t meet her as well.”
The lie he told his father led his family to tell reporters that Te’o had met his girlfriend, he told ESPN.
Why continue to talk about her after December 6 phone call?
The calls from the woman continued after the December 6, but Te’o did not answer, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told reporters this week.
At that point, Te’o confided in his parents and at least two friends and a girlfriend he had at the time about the calls, the source with knowledge of the matter told CNN. He and the “real” girlfriend have since ended that relationship.
The Heisman Trophy was awarded December 8, and Te’o continued to make comments about losing his girlfriend.
In the ESPN interview Te’o said he wasn’t fully convinced that it was a hoax until Wednesday, Schaap said. That is why he continued to speak about and answer media questions about Kekua.
CNN’s Susan Candiotti, Ross Levitt, Phil Gast and Amanda Watts contributed to this report.