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Luers star says Irish’s Te’o ‘a great guy’

Smith
Associated Press
In a photo provided by ESPN, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o pauses during an interview with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap on Friday in Bradenton, Fla.

– Jaylon Smith didn’t need to read, listen to or watch the accounts of ESPN’s interview with Manti Te’o late Friday to believe that one of his idols was the victim of a hoax.

“I’ve always been on his side. I’m not the kind of person who is going to judge a great guy like Manti,” the Bishop Luers linebacker and Notre Dame recruit said Saturday.

Smith, who will be able to sign his letter of intent to play for Notre Dame on national signing day Feb. 6, said he did read what Te’o told ESPN about the situation in which the Irish All-American was duped into believing he had an online relationship with a woman named Lennay Kekua, who never existed.

Te’o was interviewed by Jeremy Schaap at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he is preparing for the NFL draft, and Schaap provided details on “SportsCenter” and in a story and partial transcript of the 2 1/2 -hour interview on ESPN.com.

“I think he is a strong guy,” said Smith, who formed a relationship with Te’o after the linebacker was Smith’s host on his first visit to Notre Dame on March 3.

“He’s been pretty solid about everything, really not notifying (people) with information until he was positive what he was going to say.”

The story of Te’o’s girlfriend dying hours after his grandmother, Annette Santiago, died Sept. 11 was proven false Wednesday by Deadspin.com.

Te’o was the face of Notre Dame’s football team, which lost 42-14 to Alabama in the BCS championship game Jan. 7. His notoriety grew with the story of him persevering through tragedy.

Te’o told ESPN he was not involved in the hoax. Te’o said Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who has been identified as the mastermind of the scheme, apologized through a direct message on Twitter and a phone call Wednesday.

Te’o said Tuiasosopo told him that another man and a woman were involved in the scheme. Te’o said he had contact with Kekua only through social media and phone conversations and that he portrayed having met her because he was embarrassed about calling someone his girlfriend that he never met.

Te’o said he was never asked for money during the plot, but Kekua asked for his checking account number in order to send him money. Te’o did not provide the information.

Te’o also told ESPN he did not use the story to increase his chances of winning the Heisman Trophy – he finished second in the voting to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. After initially reporting that Te’o said the hoax affected his performance in the BCS title game, Schaap said there was a typo in the transcript and that Te’o said the situation did not affect him.

Te’o said he first became suspicious of Kekua when he received a phone call from a woman claiming to be his dead girlfriend Dec. 6 when he was in Orlando, Fla., for ESPN’s postseason award show. He was told she faked her death to avoid “drug people,” according to ESPN.

Te’o continued to talk about his girlfriend after the phone call because he still wasn’t sure what was happening, he told ESPN.

“I didn’t know what to believe,” Te’o told ESPN. “All I knew for sure in my head was that she died on Sept. 12.”

Te’o told Notre Dame about what was happening Dec. 26 after discussing it with his parents. The university used an independent investigator to unveil the hoax, but Notre Dame left it up to the family when to tell the public, according to Irish AD Jack Swarbrick.

The Te’os were unable to release the story before Deadspin.com published it.

Smith said he never talked to Te’o about Kekua, and that the two linebackers would mainly talk about how Smith was doing in school and how the Luers’ season was going even after Kekua’s reported death.

“I went to five games this past season and after every game, I’d go up to him shake hands, see how everything is doing,” Smith said. “He’s really a nice guy. He treated me well.”

Smith said he never lost respect for Te’o after the hoax was revealed.

“I look up to him as far as being so inspiring on the field and not only on the field but off the field also, keeping his GPA maintained and really just his faith is what I admire,” Smith said. “I’m looking forward to carrying on that tradition when I get to Notre Dame.”

tkrausz@jg.net

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