By Brian Hamilton and Stacy St. Clair, Chicago Tribune reporters
11:40 PM EST, January 17, 2013
Confused and staggered teammates rallied to his defense Thursday. The father of a man believed to be at the epicenter of a puzzling hoax asked the public not to pass judgment.
And Manti Te'o remained sequestered at a Florida training facility while questions swelled about a fictitious girlfriend, her fabricated death and the tales he told about it.
A day earlier, Notre Dame said its former captain and Heisman Trophy runner-up was the victim of a "very elaborate, very sophisticated hoax" in which Te'o was made to believe he had an online girlfriend who died of leukemia in September. Those on the team and close to it suggested in various ways that this was a one-sided sham.
"Absolutely it seemed real," former Irish receiver John Goodman, who played all four years with Te'o, told the Tribune on Thursday. "It was real. If you watch his interviews — if he's that good of an actor, then Hollywood better be giving him a call. But obviously Manti is like the rest of us. It was real in the locker room, real on the field, and that's what I know of it."
Te'o's words in 2012, meanwhile, were reconsidered and parsed thoroughly. Just two days after Notre Dame says the hoax became apparent to him Dec. 6, Te'o referred to his girlfriend and her death at a media session before the Heisman ceremony.
"I worked with Relay for Life stuff," Te'o said Dec. 8 when asked what charity work he had done in the past year. "I really got hit with cancer. I don't like cancer at all. I lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer."
In California, the father of the man described by Deadspin.com as the mastermind of the prank took to Facebook to call Te'o "an amazing role model" and asked the public to let him pursue his dreams.
Titus Tuiasosopo did not mention his 22-year-old son Ronaiah, the alleged architect of the hoax. But he thanked people for the support shown to his "aiga" — the Samoan word for family — since the story broke.
"There are not enough words in the dictionary to describe the overwhelming love & support me & my Aiga have received today," Titus Tuiasosopo wrote. "Feels like I've been drinking from a fire hydrant …
"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 Bethlehem & continue to walk on water will undoubtedly express their opinions. 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. My heart goes out to Manti & the Te'o Aiga."
Titus Tuiasosopo is a pastor at Oasis Christian Church in Southern California, according to people connected with the congregation. His personal Facebook page is linked to the church's site. Ronaiah often performs with the church band, according to pictures and other accounts posted on social media sites.
The family has made no other comments about the hoax, and numerous attempts to contact Titus Tuiasosopo and his family were unsuccessful Thursday.
Alema Te'o, Manti's uncle, told a Utah radio station Thursday of meeting Ronaiah Tuiasosopo before the USC game in November — and voicing concerns over how Tuiasosopo might have planned to use Te'o to benefit an alleged charity organization.
"He was with a young girl the age of 9," Alema Te'o told 1280-AM The Zone. "He said he did all these fundraisers for leukemia and was doing some things currently to help raise money on behalf of Lennay, this so-called Manti's girlfriend. ... He said they were having a big fundraiser ... (to) raise money for leukemia victims.
"All the while this guy is talking, I'm saying to myself, 'This guy is just trying to get close to Manti so he can get an endorsement or plant some seeds for some things down the future or get Manti to come to the events to boost up any type of revenue they could get.' ... He made it clear they were there to raise money for a friend of Lennay's who was struggling in college."
Some of Te'o's former Notre Dame teammates conceded they knew little about the relationship between the star linebacker and his purported girlfriend, which Te'o and the school say was restricted to online and telephone interaction.
One source recounted a scene in which Te'o told a fellow teammate he should cherish the conversations he had with his girlfriend because Te'o couldn't have them anymore.
Also according to sources, at least two people, including one player, spoke on the phone with a person who portrayed herself as Lennay Kekua, the alleged Stanford graduate and purported love interest of Te'o.
The player said he heard the news of a hoax break Wednesday and asked his father, "Then who was I talking to?"
While people close to the team began to suggest the Te'o-Kekua relationship was never quite as serious as publicly portrayed, teammates did not waver in their belief that Te'o was a victim.
"What you see is what you get," former Notre Dame tight end Jake Golic said. "You saw an incredible football player, a guy fans love and respected, a guy the coaches worked around and worked with and worked for. He was a great guy and great leader. It's just an unfortunate turn of events."
Said former safety Zeke Motta, a housemate of Te'o's this past fall: "Manti is a great teammate and friend. I wish people wouldn't make comments about things without knowing all the facts."
In truth, those teammates rushed to defend Te'o without the full assortment of facts, but they refused to believe him capable of complicity.
"I'm on Manti's side," Goodman said. "He was screwed over by someone who wanted to play some sick joke. I don't know if they wanted to get close to Manti or they were a huge fan or (they were) playing a joke. Whoever (plays) a sick joke like that for that long has something wrong with them. I don't put this on Manti."
Te'o remained situated at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he was to prepare for the NFL combine and draft. His agent, Tom Condon, told the Associated Press that Te'o would make no public comment.
Sports Illustrated published the entire transcript of an interview with Te'o that led to an October regional cover story in which Te'o said Kekua met him because "she knew my cousin." He added that Kekua wrote him letters before every game, took over her father's construction company and that "she saw me at the USC game of my sophomore year."
Adding another surreal twist to the story: Cardinals fullback Regan Mauia told ESPN he met a "Lennay Kekua" while doing charity work in American Samoa in June 2011. It is another episode that produced another question in a long series of unanswered ones.
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