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Manti Te’o was on the defensive during his first televised interview with Katie Couric, maintaining that he simply is the victim of a senseless hoax and denying speculation that he might be gay.
Asked point blank about his sexuality, Te’o said that he is not gay. “Far from it,” he added with emphasis.
The Notre Dame football star shot into the spotlight late last year when it was revealed that his girlfriend had died of cancer. Months later, details emerged indicating that Te’o’s girlfriend actually never existed, as the linebacker became intertwined in an elaborate hoax and never actually had met the women purported to be Lennay Kekua.
Couric grilled Te’o on whether he was involved in the prank and why he missed several red flags throughout the relationship – including unsuccessful FaceTime attempts, the constant inability to meet up and her shocking car crash that immediately was followed by a leukemia diagnosis. “Either you’re the most naive person in the world or this is the saddest story ever,” said Couric at one point.
“For me, I guess I was just so caught up in the whole thing,” Te’o said. “She would give me good reasons, too. She would say, ‘Oh my brother’s got my car’ or ‘I’m in the hospital.’ You can’t tell a person who just got out of the hospital you need to come and see me right now.”
Te’o’s remarks at the Heisman Trophy ceremony, where he was runner-up to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, drew criticism from Couric. At the podium, Te’o had acknowledged the death of his girlfriend, though just days earlier it had been revealed to him through a phone call that Kekua was not dead (and drew her existence into question).
“Part of me was saying, ‘If you say she’s alive, what would everybody think? What are you gonna tell everybody who follows you and who you’ve inspired? What are you gonna say?’ ” Te’o recalled. “As a 21-year-old, I wasn’t ready for that. I didn’t even tell my parents yet. I didn’t tell anybody. The only person who knew was me. I did not know who to turn to. … I was just scared, and I didn’t know what to do.”
Te’o did express remorse for his lies, telling Couric that being untruthful to his parents was his biggest regret. “I felt overwhelmed a lot by this whole circus of events,” he confessed.
With 15 minutes left in the broadcast, Te’o’s parents joined their son onstage for questioning in a tearful exchange.
“The belief in this person or the deception wasn’t only with Manti, it was our entire family,” said Te’o’s mother of the moment she learned about the hoax. “We had conversations with this person, so in our mind we had followed the same pattern as Manti.”
She added: “It hurts. That’s my child out there. That’s my child that in my eyes always puts others before himself. He did exactly what I would expect a responsible, respectful young man to do. To extend himself to someone who said that they lost their father and now they have cancer. I’m proud of his character. It just hurts to see his picture and his name being displayed as someone that is dishonest.”
At the end of the hour, Couric asked the family whether they had reached out to alleged hoaxer Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Te’o’s father expressed sympathy for Tuiasosopo’s family members.
“We did send a message to them through an intermediary because we didn’t have any contact expressing our heartfelt prayers for them,” he said. “I can only imagine what they’re going through on that side. … I just want to be able to let them know that we are thinking about them and praying for them also.”
Said the younger Te’o, who has had no contact with Tuiasosopo since learning of the hoax: “I’d just say, ‘You hurt me.’ But after that, I’d say: ‘Hey, draw near to your family. It’s only in these times that you realize who is actually in your corner.”
Email: Sophie.Schillaci@THR.com; Twitter: @SophieSchillaci
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