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Questions remain for Manti Te'o, even after ESPN interview

Manti Te’o will have to address the hoax for NFL teams.

Manti Te’o will have to address the hoax for NFL teams.

Manti Te'o tried to put one of the strangest sports stories in memory behind him, insisting he was the target of an elaborate online hoax in which he fell for a fake woman created by pranksters, then admitting his own lies made the bizarre ordeal worse.

Whether his off-camera interview with ESPN's Jeremy Schaap was enough to demonstrate that the All-American senior linebacker out of Notre Dame was a victim in the scheme instead of a participant is still an open question.

The most important judges of the Heisman Trophy finalist might be pro teams. Te'o, 21, has finished his coursework at Notre Dame and is preparing for the NFL draft at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, where the 2½-hour interview was conducted late Friday.

Among the highlights:

• Te'o denied being in on the hoax. "No. Never," he said. "I wasn't faking it. I wasn't part of this."

• Te'o provided a timeline and details of his relationship with Lennay Kekua, his virtual sweetheart, who went through an array of medical calamities before "dying" of leukemia in September, just hours after Te'o got real news of his grandmother's death.

• He acknowledged he lied to his father about meeting Kekua in person, then exacerbated the situation after her supposed death when he "tailored" his comments to reporters to make it sound as if their relationship was more than just phone calls and electronic messages.

"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," Te'o said. "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."

In the same conversation, Te'o said: "Out of this whole thing, that is my biggest regret."

Another development was reported Saturday. When Te'o ordered two dozen white roses delivered to 21503 Water St. in Carson, Calif., he says he thought they were headed to the home of Lennay Kekua.

In fact, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo — the man implicated as the ringleader of a false-identity hoax — and many of his relatives have lived in the single-story, stucco bungalow, according to publicly available records and interviews with neighbors.

And the house six doors down, at 21403 Water? It belongs to a family really named Kekua.

Two members of the real Kekua family told the Associated Press they had never heard of a "Lennay Kekua."

Members of the Kekua family and others in the neighborhood said Ronaiah Tuiasosopo had lived at 21503 Water St. and has visited it since moving out about a year ago.

Tuiasosopo has not spoken publicly since the website Deadspin broke the news of the hoax on Wednesday.

Even after Te'o went to his parents, coaches and Notre Dame officials with the story by Dec. 26, and the school provided an investigation that it says corroborated Te'o's version by Jan. 4, the player told ESPN that it was not until Tuiasosopo, 22, contacted him Wednesday and confessed to the prank, that he finally believed Kekua was not real. Schaap said Te'o showed him direct messages from Twitter in which Tuiasosopo admitted to masterminding the hoax and apologized.

Te'o was the emotional leader and best player on a Notre Dame team that went from unranked to playing for the program's first national title since 1988. And Te'o's tale of inspired play while dealing with a double dose of tragedy became the theme of the Irish's unexpected rise and undefeated regular season.

Not until Te'o and the Irish faced Alabama in the BCS title game did the good times end. The Crimson Tide won in a 42-14 rout on Jan. 7 and Te'o wasn't a factor.

So far no law enforcement agencies have indicated they are pursuing a criminal case in the scam, and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said last week that the school would leave it up to Te'o and his family to pursue legal action.

Whether Tuiasosopo ultimately confirms Te'o's version of the story will go a long way toward determining where this saga is headed. In the interview with ESPN, Te'o implied that he was not holding a grudge against Tuiasosopo.

While fans and members of the media might not be satisfied with where Te'o has left the story, he won't necessarily be compelled to answer to them — just to potential employers starting in February.

At the NFL combine in February, Te'o will have his physical skills and fitness tested, and he will be interviewed by NFL executives and coaches. He has been projected as a potential first-round draft pick.

Said former Dallas Cowboys general manager and NFL draft consultant Gil Brandt: "Between now and 97 days from now when the draft comes, there'll be a lot of people investigating just what took place."

Questions remain for Manti Te'o, even after ESPN interview

01/21/13 [Last modified: Saturday, January 19, 2013 10:49pm]
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