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By David Bailey
Jan 24 (Reuters) - Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o said he was the victim of an elaborate online hoax and denied in an interview broadcast on Thursday having had any part in the construction of the dramatic story of his dying girlfriend.
"No, I did not," Te'o said in the interview with Katie Couric broadcast on the daytime talk show "Katie." "I think what people don't realize is that the same day that everybody else found out about this situation, I found out."
The reported deaths of Te'o's grandmother and purported girlfriend, both on Sept. 12, and his response to the tragedies, were often repeated stories during Notre Dame's bid for a national championship last season. His grandmother did die that day.
Te'o, who was a finalist for college football's highest individual honor for helping drive Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season, admitted he maintained the public deception after he learned the truth that she had never existed, but he did not do so for personal gain.
Couric asked Te'o to respond to several theories people have raised since the hoax was revealed, including that he might be gay and created the relationship to hide his sexual orientation.
"No, far from it," Te'o said when asked by Couric if he were gay. "Far from that."
Te'o sat with his hands often clasped and responded in a soft tone to Couric's questions, telling her he did not know if the Lennay Kekua story had supported his Heisman trophy candidacy.
It was his first on-camera interview since sports blog Deadspin.com broke the story on Jan. 16 that Kekua did not exist. Couric also interviewed his parents, Brian and Ottilia Te'o, who defended their son.
Notre Dame, one of the most powerful institutions in U.S. collegiate athletics, held a news conference within hours of the Deadspin.com story to say that Te'o had been duped.
Te'o had told sports network ESPN in an off-camera interview on Friday that an acquaintance, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, had told him he was behind the hoax.
Te'o said in the interview with Couric that Tuiasosopo, who he had spoken to twice before and had believed was Kekua's cousin, confessed the hoax to him on Jan. 16.
Te'o said he received a telephone call from the person claiming to be Kekua on Dec. 6 - two days before the Heisman presentation - and he wasn't really certain she never existed until Tuiasosopo's confession to him.
"My whole reality was she was dead, and now all of the sudden she's alive. At that time I didn't know that it was just somebody's prank."
He went along with the Kekua story the day of the Heisman presentation, though he knew at a minimum that she was alive, and did not tell his parents until Christmas, he said.
"Part of me was saying that if you say she is alive what would everybody think? What are you going to tell everybody who follows you, who you inspire? What are you going to say? At that time, on Dec. 8, two days after I just found out she was alive, as a 21-year-old, I wasn't ready for that."
Te'o said he "wasn't forthcoming" about the extent of his relationship with Kekua, that they had never met in person, but reporters did not ask him directly if they had met in person.
He said he was most sorry for having told his father he had seen Kekua in person when he was in Hawaii, a story that his father repeated to media when asked.
When asked why he wouldn't simply want a girlfriend he could spend time with on campus, Te'o said he was drawn to Kekua because her background appeared similar to his own.
"What I went through was real," Te'o said. "The feelings, the pain, the sorrow, that was all real. That is something I can't fake."
Te'o said he did not know how the hoax would affect his position in the National Football League draft.
"As far as my draft status, I hope and pray that good happens obviously, but as long as my family is OK, I can live with whatever happens," he said. (Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Tim Dobbyn)