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. …

In 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.