SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A day after Manti Te'o spoke publicly for the first time since it was revealed the story of whom he considered his dead girlfriend was a hoax, a friend of the former Notre Dame linebacker came to his defense, recalling a scene from this past spring that appears to validate the purported April 28 car accident in which Te'o was told "Lennay Kekua" was involved.
John Pepelnjak, a junior political science and computer applications major at Notre Dame, told ESPN.com that he was playing video games with Te'o one night this past spring in Te'o's Dillon Hall dorm room when Te'o received an anticipated phone call from multiple males that Te'o believed to be the brothers of Kekua.
"As a close friend of Manti's, I feel obliged to tell a story about a situation that I had witnessed in which his feelings for Lennay were made very real," Pepelnjak said in a statement. "Back in late April or early May, I want to say within the first couple days following the supposed car crash, I can testify with 100 percent certainty that he spoke on the phone with Lennay's 'brothers' and that he did NOT create this hoax. Manti and I were playing video games in his room, and he received a phone call that he had been anxiously awaiting. Manti desperately wanted to understand what had happened and what kind of condition she was in."
Pepelnjak said Te'o kept him apprised of some of the details of the conversation during several pauses, telling Pepelnjak during one of them that he was speaking on the phone with Kekua's brothers.
"That phone call made it clear to me how much Lennay meant to him," Pepelnjak said. "Everything he said and every emotion he expressed were painfully authentic."
Te'o told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap during a two-and-a-half-hour interview Friday night that he had no part in the hoax of Kekua, whose story was told and re-told throughout the Fighting Irish's run to the Discover BCS National Championship, a season that saw Te'o finish as the Heisman Trophy runner-up.
Te'o said he did not make anything up to help his Heisman candidacy, saying he did not know for sure that Kekua ever existed until Wednesday, when Ronaiah Tuiasosopo called him and admitted he was behind the hoax.
Deadspin.com posted a story later Wednesday with details of an online relationship that Te'o believed he had had with Kekua, which Te'o says he learned was a hoax.
"While there are still a few questions to be answered by investigators and the perpetrators, I can assure you that Manti did not devise this elaborate scheme," Pepelnjak said. "He truly believed he had formed a meaningful relationship with a cute and smart Hawaiian girl who cared about him for who he was, not just the No. 5.
"His rise to stardom has undoubtedly been both a blessing and a curse. Manti is just a normal guy with a kind heart, and sadly, a group of scheming jerks decided to play with his heart for whatever sick reason, pretending to be the girl of his dreams that could see past his stardom and care about him for who he really was. Ultimately, that's all that everyone wants, people who care about you for who you are, and Manti is no different."