For Manti Te'o, never is a really long time.
Te'o sat down with ESPN's Jeremy Schaap late Friday night to discuss the sordid saga of his involvement with Lennay Kekua; a story that has gotten weirder and weirder since Deadspin broke the news on Wednesday that Kekua was neither dead nor real.
Te'o told Schaap—during an interview in which no television cameras were allowed and a public relations consultant was by his side—that he was never involved in the hoax in any way. He was the victim.
"No. Never," Te'o said during the two-and-a-half-hour interview. "I wasn't faking it. I wasn't part of this."
Never is a really long time.
Deadspin's Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey were very careful in their initial report not to implicate Te'o in the hoax, sticking to the facts they were able to verify while leaving enough speculation in the story for certain dots to be connected back to Te'o.
Some close to the situation said they were "80 percent" sure Te'o knew about the hoax earlier in the year. Teammates started to tell reporters this week how they suspected back in September the story was too good to be true and either she wasn't Te'o's girlfriend and he was using the tragedy to his advantage in the public eye or, maybe, she wasn't even real.
A plausible working theory is that Te'o likely found out about the hoax earlier in the season and played along with it because it was too late to go back and tell everyone his girlfriend wasn't dead, or even real.
Given the questionable timeline put forth by Notre Dame Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick in which he admitted Te'o had received a phone call on Dec. 6 and waited 20 days to tell the Irish administrators (who subsequently sat on the story until after Deadspin's report was published on Jan. 16), that is a possibility.
At this point, nobody really thinks Te'o was the mastermind, but to say he was "never" involved seems highly questionable. It certainly warrants more investigation, which is exactly what Te'o was trying to avoid.
With Schaap, Te'o denied any involvement, suggesting he didn't know for sure Kekua was not a real person until Wednesday. That's when he was contacted by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the alleged perpetrator of a three-year-long hoax on Te'o. Deadspin's report was published on Wednesday.
"When (people) hear the facts, they'll know," Te'o told Schaap. "They'll know that there is no way that I could be part of this."
It seems many people want to believe him, which makes it hard to come out and say I don't, especially without any hard evidence to prove otherwise. The circumstances, more than what Te'o said to Schaap, are what seem the most unbelievable.
Had Te'o taken responsibility on Friday for letting the American public believe for more than 40 days that his girlfriend had actually died in September and that Notre Dame was in on the coverup for the last 20 while he led them to the national championship game, it would have been a lot easier to believe he was the victim.
Instead, Te'o blamed his poor performance in the BCS national title game on the stress of the situation after—per his conversation with Schaap—he was contacted by a group connected to Tuiasosopo that showed up at the team hotel and harassed him the night before the game. (UPDATE: Schaap cited a typo in the transcript and Te'o said the distraction was not the reason for his poor play.)
Te'o also told Schaap he was never a victim of extortion, but he was asked one time for his checking account number so Kekua—or whoever—could send him money.
Hard to Believe
Te'o told Schaap he did try to talk to Kekua via Skype or FaceTime, but every time he signed on, her video didn't work. Darn that technology.
Through it all, Te'o admitted very little culpability in anything. He explained that after receiving the call on Dec. 6 that explained it was a hoax, he wasn't sure what to believe.
"She said, 'It's Lennay,' " he said. "So we carried on that conversation, and I just got mad. I just went on a rampage. 'How could you do this to me?' I ended that conversation by saying simply this: 'You know what? Lennay, my Lennay, died on Sept. 12.' "
That doesn't work for me. The "you're dead to me" line is great to an ex-girlfriend, or whoever this woman on the phone was. To go on the stage two days later with Chris Fowler at the Heisman Trophy presentation and let this play out the way it did is nonsense.
Public relations people exist for a reason. If there was any chance of this story being a hoax, Te'o should have talked to Notre Dame's handlers to make sure ESPN and other reporters didn't highlight his girlfriend's death during the award ceremony.
Instead, Te'o let the story play out, telling Fowler (via Awful Announcing), "I think I’ll never forget the time when I found out that, you know, my girlfriend passed away…"
The Hawaii Coverup
Te'o did admit one thing to Schaap, telling the reporter he lied to his father about ever meeting Kekua in person because he was embarrassed at having an online-only girlfriend. Te'o said it was his father who ran with the story of them meeting, and he denied ever telling reporters he had a face-to-face meeting with her in 2009 at Stanford where he touched her hand.
"I'd never told anybody that I've touched her hand," he said.
"That goes back to what I did with my dad," Te'o said. "I knew that—I even knew, that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn't meet, and that alone—people find out that this girl who died, I was so invested in, I didn't meet her, as well. So I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away, so that people wouldn't think that I was some crazy dude."
His dad may have done the biggest disservice to Te'o's credibility, telling the South Bend Tribune in October (via Deadspin's original report), "[t]hey started out as just friends. Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there."
Te'o would tell his father his girlfriend was traveling to Hawaii to see him, and she never stopped by the family house and met his dad? Hawaii isn't that big.
Where did Te'o and Kekua go during those visits to the island? Even traveling from California, where Kekua supposedly lived, that's quite a trip to make without ever meeting his family. Did his father lie, or was Te'o sleeping at a friend's house to trick his dad into thinking a girl was there with him? How elaborate did that hoax get, and if Te'o is willing to dupe his father with such detail, why should we suspect he's not still trying to dupe us?
Let's circle back to the trips. Te'o's explanation of why he never met Kekua in person leads to the biggest question of what Te'o really knew.
Timing of Non-Visit Undercuts Te'o Version
According to the well-documented (and utterly fake) story, Kekua got in a terrible car accident late on April 28 and was in a coma until mid-May. At that point, per Te'o, the relationship became more serious, as the two fell asleep on the phone with each other every night.
It may have been cynical for Schaap to ask Te'o, or his handler who was in the room during the interview, to provide phone records that showed he was on the phone for that long every night, but it would go a long way to making Te'o's story of long-distance love more believable.
When Schaap asked Te'o why he never went to see her in the hospital, he replied, "It never really crossed my mind. I don't know. I was in school."
Spring football practice for Notre Dame ran through the month of April, culminating on Saturday, April 21, with the Blue-Gold Game in South Bend. Typically, when spring football ends, players have time away from the field to focus on final exams. Notre Dame's spring academic session officially ended on May 18, 2012, just about the time Kekua reportedly came out of her coma.
If that's the time Te'o and Kekua became close, it "never crossed his mind" to fly out to see her?
Not once during that summer did Te'o go visit Kekua after she had been in a car accident that was so severe she was in a coma for two weeks?
When pressed why he never went to see his ailing girlfriend, Te'o told Schaap he was in school, but Notre Dame did not have any classes scheduled between May 18 and May 29 when the first five-week summer session began.
Even if Te'o was on campus focusing on football in the summer, he surely could have left for a few days to visit his girlfriend who had been in a coma. Notre Dame's fall camp didn't begin until the first week of August.
Kekua was reportedly diagnosed with leukemia in "late June or early July," and he still never went to her side?
I wonder what Te'o's father thought of that. After all, he was tricked into thinking Kekua had come to Hawaii to spend time with Manti on more than one occasion. Now, with the woman both in a coma and sick with cancer over a three-month span, his son never went to see her once?
There are more questions than answers, and we haven't even gotten into Te'o's previous relationship with Tuiasosopo and those reportedly involved in this hoax. How well did he know the perpetrators?
Te'o told Schaap that when people hear all the facts, they'll know. It will be nice at some point to actually hear, you know, all the facts. Until then, there are too many questions to blindly believe Te'o's side of the story. This one-on-one, no-camera conversation may have done more harm than good.