A college football star at the centre of an elaborate hoax told a TV talk show host that the feelings he had for what turned out to be a fake, online girlfriend were real, and insisted he had nothing to do with the fabrication.
The televised interview broadcast on Thursday included the airing of voicemails from someone pretending to be the girlfriend of Manti Te'o where the person is heard telling the Notre Dame linebacker, "I love you".
Te'o's tale of courageous play shortly after the supposed deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend on the same day in September warmed the hearts of college football fans all over America.
His grandmother had, in fact, died. But sympathy turned to shock when Deadspin broke the news on January 16 that the woman Te'o had claimed to be in love with did not exist.
The revelation prompted speculation that Te'o must be a straight-laced Mormon, naive and unfamiliar with modern-day dating hazards. Or that he must be part of an elaborate hoax designed to bolster his image, or that he was hiding the fact that he was gay.
He told TV show host Katie Couric that he was not faking it, and was truly sorrowful and pained after being told that the woman he knew as Lennay Kekua - a woman he had fallen for but never met face-to-face - had died of leukaemia.
Te'o has admitted that when his girlfriend's "death" became a story, he misled reporters into thinking he had met her in the flesh.
The hour-long interview featured three voicemail messages from the person pretending to be Kekua, who was heard saying "I love you" to Te'o.
After the first message was played, Te'o said: "It sounds like a girl, doesn't it?"
Couric replied: "It does."
Te'o's parents appeared with him for part of the interview and backed up his claim that he wasn't involved in the hoax, saying they, too, had spoken on the phone with a person they believed to be Kekua.
In the interview, Couric addressed speculation that the tale was concocted by Te'o as a way to cover up his sexual orientation. Asked if he were gay, Te'o said "no" with a laugh. "Far from it. Far from that."
The first voicemail, he said, was from what was supposed to be Kekua's first day of chemotherapy for leukaemia.
"Hi, I am just letting you know I got here and I'm getting ready for my first session and, um, just want to call you to keep you posted. I miss you. I love you. Bye," the person said.
In the second voicemail, the person was apparently upset by someone else answering Te'o's phone.
The third voicemail was left on September 11, Te'o says, the day he believed Kekua was released from the hospital and the day before she "died".
"Hey babe, I'm just calling to say goodnight," the person on the voicemail said. "I love you. I know that you're probably doing homework or you're with the boys. . . . But I just wanted to say I love you and goodnight and I'll be OK tonight. I'll do my best. Um, yeah, so get your rest and I'll talk to you tomorrow. I love you so much, hon. Sweet dreams."
Te'o also said he was "scared" and "didn't know what to do" after receiving a call on December 6 - two days before the annual presentation of the Heisman Trophy for the best collegiate football player - from a person who claimed to be his by then "dead" girlfriend.
Couric suggested the person who left those messages might have been Ronaiah Tuisasosopo, a 22-year-old man from California, who Te'o said had apologised to him for pulling the hoax.
"Do you think that could have been a man on the other end of the phone," she asked.
"Well, it didn't sound like a man," Te'o said. "It sounded like a woman. If he somehow made that voice, that's incredible. That's an incredible talent to do that. Especially every single day."Tuiasosopo has not spoken publicly since news of the hoax broke. The Associated Press has learned that a home in California where Te'o sent flowers to the Kekua family was once a residence of Tuiasosopo and has been in his family for decades.
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