What did Manti Te'o know and when did he know it?
The strange saga of the Notre Dame linebacker, Heisman finalist and likely first-round NFL draft pick's fabricated love life took even more strange twists Friday, but it remained unclear if Te'o was in on the hoax from the get-go or a dupe who let the tragic love story stay alive in a doomed effort to spare the Fighting Irish embarrassment.
In his first public remarks since Deadspin.com broke the story, Te'o maintained he was not involved in creating the dead girlfriend hoax.
He said in an off-camera interview with ESPN Friday night: "When they hear the facts they'll know. They'll know there is no way I could be a part of this."
Te'o said Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a 22-year-old friend who allegedly perpetrated the bizarre hoax, contacted him two days ago and confessed to the prank.
ESPN reported Friday Tuiasosopo tearfully admitted in December that he had tricked his friend into falling in love with the fictitious Lennay Kekua. Tuiasosopo reportedly told the sports network's source that he enlisted a female cousin to play the role over the phone, talking to the Notre Dame star deep into the night during the fake relationship.
"He [Ronaiah] told me that Manti was not involved at all, he was a victim. ... The girlfriend was a lie, the accident was a lie, the leukemia was a lie," said the woman, who ESPN did not identify. "He was crying, he was literally crying, he's like 'I know, I know what I have to do.'"
Lannay Kekua's storybook romance with Te'o and her tragic death of leukemia — diagnosed during treatment for injuries suffered in a car accident — became a tear-jerking storyline as Notre Dame stormed undefeated through their regular season, riding on the shoulders of their star-crossed and stoic middle linebacker, who had also lost his grandmother earlier in the season.
Although ESPN's source did not say if or when Tuiasosopo told Te'o he'd been cruelly tricked, Te'o has said he learned the love of his life didn't exist on Dec. 6 and told the school 20 days later. In interviews leading up to Notre Dame's Jan. 7 national championship game against Alabama, Te'o took questions about Kekua. Although that was long after he, by his own admission, had learned the woman never existed, his supporters have floated the idea that he may have kept his humiliation to himself to spare the team from distraction. It probably didn't matter: Alabama won handily, 42-14.
An unidentified teammate told PepperOnSports.com many on the team were dubious about Te'o's mystery woman even if their captain and defensive star wasn't.
“No, we all knew he had only seen her once,” the player said. “But when the media was saying how he went through both deaths, we knew.”
The player's own theory is that the lie may have started with someone duping Te’o while using a bogus Twitter account. Once the media began spreading it, there was no turning back, he said.
Asked if he believed Te’o was keeping the story going because of the media attention, the source replied: “Yeah. Right after the Michigan [State] game. He should have never brought her in the media. His grandma passing was enough.”
While several players discussed their suspicions, no one decided to confront the star linebacker.
“We would never bring it up,” the source continued. “But we would look at him when he would get all emotional during media about his girl.”
Asked if he thought Te’o was a good actor, the player replied: “Very good.”
Although neither Te'o nor Tuiasosopo has not spoken publicly since the story surfaced, the alleged hoaxer's father, Titus Tuiasosopo, posted a rambling statement on Facebook thanking unspecified people for supporting his family.
"There are not enough words in the dictionary to describe the overwhelming love & support me & my Aiga have received today," the statement read. "Feels like I've been drinking from a fire hydrant.lol. Your texts, calls, emails, prayers & messages are received with a sincerely humble heart. I know so much has been splattered all over the media about my son & my family. I also know that many who were born in a manger in B...ethlehem & continue to walk on water will undoubtedly express their opinions."
The story included a plea for people to support Te'o, who was considered an early first-round pick in April's NFL draft until a disastrous national championship game against Alabama and then the bizarre hoax that could call into question his judgment, if not his character.
"Those of you who know us the best still love us the most. It my hope & prayer that we allow the truth to take its course, wherever that may lead," Tuiasosopo wrote. "My heart goes out to Manti & the Te'o Aiga. Please allow this young man to pursue his dream without judgement. He's an amazing role model for our youth and Samoan community. I love U all from the bottom of my heart."
Meanwhile, Notre Dame student body president Brett Rocheleau said the "entire campus will stop what they're doing" when Manti decides to break his silence.
"I think the majority of students believe in Manti," Rocheleau said Thursday. "They just want to hear him answer these final few questions and hear the story from his point of view."
When Te'o will do that, like so much else about this story, is still a mystery.
An Associated Press review of news coverage found that Te'o talked about his doomed love in a Web interview on Dec. 8 and again in a newspaper interview published Dec. 10. He and the university said he learned on Dec. 6 that it was all a hoax — not only was she not dead, she wasn't real.
On Thursday, a day after the bizarre news broke, there were questions about whether he really was duped, as he claimed, or whether he and the university were complicit in the hoax and misled the public, perhaps to improve his chances of winning the Heisman. He came in second, propelled by one of the most compelling plot lines of the season.
Yahoo sports columnist Dan Wetzel said the case has "left everyone wondering whether this was really the case of a naïve football player done wrong by friends or a fabrication that has yet to play to its conclusion."
Gregg Doyel, national columnist for CBSSports.com, was more direct.
"Nothing about this story has been comprehensible, or logical, and that extends to what happens next," he wrote. "I cannot comprehend Manti Te'o saying anything that could make me believe he was a victim."
On Wednesday, Te'o and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the player was drawn into a virtual romance with a woman who used the phony name Lennay Kekua, and was fooled into believing she died of leukemia in September. They said his only contact with the woman was via the Internet and telephone. Te'owas not at the news conference; the school released a 225-word statement from him.
Te'o also lost his grandmother — for real — the same day his girlfriend supposedly died, and his role in leading Notre Dame to its best season in decades endeared him to fans and put him at the center of one of college football's feel-good stories of the year.
Relying on information provided by Te'o's family members, the South Bend Tribune reported in October that Te'o and Kekua first met, in person, in 2009, and that the two had also gotten together in Hawaii, where Te'o grew up.
Sports Illustrated posted a previously unpublished transcript of a one-on-one interview with Te'o from Sept. 23. In it, he goes into great detail about his relationship with Kekua and her physical ailments. He also mentioned meeting her for the first time after a game in California.
"We met just, ummmm, just she knew my cousin. And kind of saw me there so. Just kind of regular," he told SI.
Among the outstanding questions: Why didn't Te'o ever clarify the nature of his relationship as the story took on a life of its own?
Te'o's agent, Tom Condon, said the athlete had no plans to make any public statements in Bradenton, Fla., where he has been training with other NFL hopefuls at the IMG Academy.
The AP's media review turned up two instances during that gap when the football star mentioned Kekua in public.
Te'o was in New York for the Heisman presentation on Dec. 8 and, during an interview before the ceremony that ran on the WSBT.com, the website for a South Bend TV station, Te'o said: "I mean, I don't like cancer at all. I lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer. So I've really tried to go to children's hospitals and see, you know, children."
In a column that first ran in The Los Angeles Times, on Dec. 10, Te'o recounted why he played a few days after he found out Kekua died in September, and the day she was supposedly buried.
"She made me promise, when it happened, that I would stay and play," he said on Dec. 9 while attending a ceremony in Newport Beach, Calif., for the Lott Impact Awards.
On Wednesday, when Deadspin.com broke the story, Swarbrick said Notre Dame did not go public with its findings sooner because it expected the Te'o family to come forward first.
Asked if the NCAA was monitoring the Te'o story for possible rules violations, NCAA President Mark Emmert said:
"We don't know anything more than you do," he told reporters at the organization's convention in Dallas. "We're learning about this through the stories just the same as you are. But we have to wait and see what really transpired there. It's obviously (a) very disturbing story and it's hard to tell where the facts lie at this point.
"But Notre Dame is obviously looking into it and there will be a lot more to come forward. Right now, it just looks ... well, we don't know what the facts are, so I shouldn't comment beyond that."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.