Updated Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 02:01 AM
NEW YORK — Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o maintains he was never involved in creating the dead-girlfriend hoax.
He told ESPN in an off-camera interview Friday night: "I wasn't faking it. I wasn't part of this. When they hear the facts, they'll know. They'll know there is no way I could be a part of this."
The comments were Te'o's first public remarks since Deadspin.com reported his girlfriend not only didn't die but, in fact, never existed.
Notre Dame and Te'o insist he was the victim of a cruel joke.
Still unanswered are questions why the All-American never made it clear he knew the woman only online and by telephone.
Earlier Friday, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick urged Te'o and his family to speak publicly about the hoax.
Te'o was interviewed by ESPN's Jeremy Schaap at the IMG Training Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where Te'o is preparing for the NFL draft. ESPN officials said a public-relations consultant was with Te'o.
The Heisman Trophy finalist and his family reportedly had planned to go public with the story Monday, but Deadspin.com broke the news first Wednesday.
Te'o led the Fighting Irish to a 12-0 regular season and the BCS National Championship Game in Miami Gardens, Fla., where they were routed 42-14 by Alabama and the senior played poorly.
The supposed architect of the hoax reportedly admitted to fabricating it without Te'o's collusion, and a source confirmed to the Chicago Tribune the fictitious girlfriend told Te'o she faked her demise to avoid drug dealers.
How anyone could be ensnared by such a mind-bending narrative is one of the central unanswered questions in the ordeal.
Levi Te'o, born five days before his cousin Manti, offered this explanation: A trusting, open and caring nature betrayed his relative.
"I completely vouch for him because I know that's how Manti is," Levi Te'o said. "I know that he's really trustworthy. It may take a little bit for you to gain his trust, but when you do, it's pretty strong. He's a very strong personality kind of guy. He loves everybody.
"It's just sad to see someone take advantage of him like that, knowing that he was like that."
That is what Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, 22, allegedly preyed upon in creating a bogus woman named Lennay Kekua who began an online- and telephone-only relationship with Te'o, only to die in September of leukemia and create a personal backstory that propelled Te'o to national renown but ultimately crumbled this week.
Schaap reported after a 2 ½-hour interview with Te'o the player wasn't completely sure Kekua did not exist until two days ago — when Tuiasosopo called Te'o to admit he was behind the hoax and apologized.
Te'o said he first met Tuiasosopo in person after the USC game Nov. 24, when Tuiasosopo told him he was Kekua's cousin.
As for at least one glaring inconsistency — the story of how Te'o and Kekua met — the former Irish standout admitted to a lie. The relationship, such as it was, began during Te'o's sophomore year at Notre Dame via Facebook, he told ESPN. He attempted to contact Kekua via Skype and FaceTime several times but never saw a face on the other end, Te'o said.
As for the story of meeting Kekua on the field at Stanford in 2009, a tale retold by his father in October, Te'o said: "I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away."
ESPN reported Friday that Tuiasosopo called a friend from church in early December and admitted he duped Te'o.
The network cited an anonymous female source who claimed Tuiasosopo tearfully conceded Te'o was not involved and that Kekua and her alleged April car accident and subsequent battle with leukemia were all fabrications.
Schaap asked why Te'o didn't attempt to visit Kekua in the hospital.
"It never really crossed my mind," Te'o replied. "I don't know. I was in school."
What remains unclear is the motive behind the Kekua character resurfacing Dec. 6 in a call to Te'o.
In a timeline, Notre Dame officials said there was "persistent" contact from the person claiming to be Kekua well after that initial reintroduction.
To explain her prolonged silence and apparent rising from the grave, an explanation was concocted: Kekua had faked her death to avoid drug dealers, she told Te'o.
That story was first reported by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and confirmed to the Chicago Tribune by a source with knowledge of the situation. The source also confirmed Te'o asked for time-stamped, photographic proof of Kekua's apparently renewed existence, which he received.
Notre Dame officials said Te'o reported the situation to coaches Dec. 26.
Te'o said the ordeal weighed on him during the BCS title game.
"It affected me," Te'o said. "When you're stuck in a big game like that ... people depend on you. You need to perform."