Del Pilar, 21, describes her ex as a kind, gentle family man with a big heart who genuinely loved Lennay Kekua, who allegedly died of leukemia Sept. 12, though that turned out to be a hoax.
"Lennay was often brought up in conversation," Del Pilar, a junior at Notre Dame sister school St. Mary's College in South Bend, Ind., who met Te'o in November and dated him until earlier this month, tells PEOPLE. "I wanted to know about her, and how they did the long distance. He definitely [loved her]."
Del Pilar says Te'o, 22, proved equally devoted to her, regularly checking in before and after games when he was on the road – and he introduced her to his family.
"At the last home game they had a luau and he invited me to that," she says. "They did the [traditional Maori] Haka dance and his sisters performed the Hula and he made me try all the Hawaiian food. For me, family comes first, so when he did that, that really showed me his character. That's what drew us together."
Victim of a HoaxIn early December, after fielding a call from someone posing as Kekua saying she was still alive, Te'o confided in Del Pilar. Soon it became evident that he'd been the victim of a "catfishing" hoax. But never once, says Del Pilar, did she believe he was in on it.
"I was sick to my stomach. I cried," she says of when Te'o told her what had happened. "Nothing made sense. But since he didn't understand it either, he told me everything he knew."
"I just felt completely sorry for him," she went on, "because he was being accused of things he had no idea about. People were quick to jump on who he is as a person – especially after all the praise they had given him for everything he did at Notre Dame."
Did He Lie?In an interview with Couric airing Thursday, Te'o says that he continued to refer to Kekua during interviews leading up to the Heisman Trophy Award Ceremony on Dec. 8 because he was confused by the phone call.
"Katie, put yourself in my situation. ... My whole world told me that she died on Sept. 12," Te'o said. "Everybody knew that. This girl, who I committed myself to, died on Sept. 12."
Accompanied by his parents Brian and Ottilia, Te'o confirmed that he received an apology from Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who allegedly built social media profiles for Kekua using photographs of a high school classmate.
Meanwhile, since breaking up this month due to long distance – Te'o is training in Florida for the NFL Scouting Combine, a showcase leading up to April's draft, and Del Pilar is in school – Del Pilar says the two of them are still "very close friends" who "talk every day."
"We've been supporting each other," she says. "He's doing better now."
Lorenzo Bevilaqua / ABC