Te'o helmet

The legend of Manti Te’o just got more complicated

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Much of what made the 2012 Notre Dame football season feel magical is unraveling before our very eyes. The Irish, who deftly walked a tightrope of destiny to the national championship game, were swiftly knocked to the ground by mighty Alabama. The head coach that conjured up the third year magic captured by legends like Holtz and Parseghian, nearly bolted for the first NFL head coaching position that came his way.

But no story rips at the fabric of the Irish’s magical season like Wednesday’s revelations about Manti Te’o. Te’o’s personal tragedy — losing his grandmother and then his girlfriend in a span of hours — captured the hearts and minds of even the most casual football fan. His on-field brilliance, leading the Irish while carrying immense grief, was a story no media outlet could turn down (this one included), and it led to countless profiles, magazine covers, and television specials.

Combined with his All-American exploits on the field, Te’o’s valor in dire circumstances — and his willingness to talk about the pain he experienced in saying goodbye to his long-distance girlfriend — made it easy to embrace the spiritual leader of the Irish.

But it also makes coming to grips with reality that much harder. As we learned Wednesday that it all turned out to be a hoax.

In a story that spread like wildfire across the internet, Deadspin revealed that Te’o’s girlfriend Lennay Kekua was fake. Her death never happened. She was a figment of somebody’s twisted imagination.

This from Deadspin’s report:

There is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper.

Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. The Stanford registrar’s office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.

The photographs identified as Kekua—in online tributes and on TV news reports—are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman who is not named Lennay Kekua. She is not a Stanford graduate; she has not been in a severe car accident; and she does not have leukemia. And she has never met Manti Te’o.

For a website that has dug up dirt on sports biggest names, the Te’o story was one of the biggest the site has ever published, rocketing to over one million pageviews in just over two hours. And in a matter of minutes, Te’o went from one of sports’ gallant warriors to one of its biggest punch lines.

Notre Dame was quick to release a statement, penned by university spokesman Dennis Brown, who characterized Te’o as a “victim of what appears to be a hoax.” Deadspin’s report was a little bit more skeptical about Te’o, with its final paragraphs spent connecting Te’o to the perpetrators of the scam, a group that had ties to Te’o through his Hawaiian roots and distant family. An unnamed source with connections to the group that pulled the scam told Deadspin they were “80 percent” sure that Te’o was in on it, pushing the narrative that Te’o was hungry for publicity, something he never lacked in his four years in South Bend.

The story set off a long afternoon for journalists, many of whom (me included) told the story of Te’o with an admiration for his ability to play through the grief. But after talking with several people inside and close to the program, Te’o’s role in this bizarre situation was never questioned. But more than a few questions existed about Lennay Kekua, even before Wednesday’s news.

From the start, teammates were skeptical about Te’o’s relationship with a girl they had never met. Yet with a leader like Te’o, a guy that was so very clearly cut from a different cloth, it was difficult to challenge a teammate that had always walked around with a conviction and belief system so very different than most 21-year-olds. And if that meant a long-distance, heart-tugging relationship for Te’o that only existed during late-night phone calls and Twitter exchanges, then teammates were quick to shrug their shoulders at a boyfriend-girlfriend dynamic that was just as unusual as their once-in-a-generation teammate.

But it was that uniqueness that Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick thinks made him the perfect target.

“This was a very elaborate, very sophisticated hoax. Perpetrated for reasons we can’t fully understand,” Swarbrick said Wednesday night in a media session. “In many ways, Manti was the perfect mark.”

In his near hour-long media session, Swarbrick sounded like a man very prepared for this story to come to the surface. And he vividly explained how Notre Dame found out about the imaginary Lennay Kekua, weaving a tale so detailed and ridiculous that it just might be true.

Swarbrick told the story about Notre Dame’s star middle linebacker meeting a girl online. A relationship that built through late night phone calls, a string of tweets, a web that grew larger and more elaborate with each passing week. And as that relationship great more dramatic, Te’o clung tighter.

“The more trouble she was in, car accident, diagnosis of leukemia, the more engaged he would become,” Swabrick said.

It turns out that Te’o’s football season did play out like the plot of a Hollywood movie. Only instead of a feel good tear-jerker, it turned into a twisted psychological game, not unlike the documentary Catfish, which has spurred a series on MTV, and a rabid following among a generation that builds most of its relationships online. Te’o, apparently, was part of a deception all too familiar.

“It is a scam that follows the exact arc of this,” Swarbrick explained. “And it’s perpetrated with shocking frequency. An initial casual engagement, a developing relationship online. A subsequent trama — traffic accident, illness — and then a death. As hard as it is for me to get my arms around this, there is apparently some sport in doing this and doing it successfully.”

So successful that it not only fooled Te’o, but the hundreds of journalists that bought into the linebacker’s pain and suffering.

“The single most trusting human being I’ve ever met will never be able to trust again in the same way,” Swarbrick said.

For his part, Te’o has stayed silent, releasing only a statement:

This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating. It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother’s death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life. I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been. In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was. Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I’m looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft.

What this says about Manti Te’o largely will be up to the individual. For those that have followed him for four seasons, they’ll likely give him the benefit of the doubt, not so much for his play on the field, but for his life off of it. But there are certain inconsistencies that the linebacker likely needs to clarify — namely some quotes given to reputable reporters about trips Lennay may or may not have taken to Hawaii, or a chance meeting that was allegedly back in 2009. They are likely the product of a story too good to be unwritten by Te’o, and a bond forged without sight difficult to grasp by those not walking in a college kid’s footsteps.

But Te’o owes it to his most ardent supporters to explain himself — there’s rumors of a media session set for Thursday. But it’ll likely be up to Te’o’s new representation, the mega-sports agent Tom Condon, to determine that. After youthful foolishness got Te’o into these troubles, you can’t blame Condon and CAA, an agency that’s the most powerful in Hollywood, to crisis manage this one carefully.

Te’o’s legacy at Notre Dame will now carry a footnote even uglier than the BCS National Championship, where the linebacker played like a guy with something far bigger on his mind. Perhaps it was the unraveling of this monsterous act of deception, which Notre Dame dispatched an independent investigator to get to the bottom of, presenting their facts to the Te’o family in the days before the title game.

“There was a place to send flowers,” Swarbrick said, when asked about funeral arrangements for a fictitious death. “There was no detail of the hoax left undone.”

The invincibility Te’o carried himself with all season disappeared against Alabama. There were missed tackles. There was frustration. There was the acknowledgement that destiny wasn’t to be fulfilled, something probably made easier in the days that followed the revelation that he had been duped.

And while even his closest friends didn’t quite understand the attraction to a mysterious girl thousands of miles away, it’s no surprise to Swarbrick that Te’o gave his all to this girl just as he had to his teammates, his classmates at Notre Dame, or the community that embraced him this year.

“The pain was real, the grief was real, the affection was real,” Swarbrick said. “That’s the nature of this sad, cruel game.”

***

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Path to the Draft: Will Fuller

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 14: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on November 14, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won 28-7. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Part two of a seven-part series looking back at Notre Dame’s impressive 2016 draft class. 

 

Will Fuller
No. 21 overall to the Houston Texans

For as much flack as Will Fuller took from the moment he declared for the NFL Draft until his named was called after Houston traded up to land him with the 21st pick, most of it missed the biggest story of them all. We were talking about Will Fuller.

Perhaps Notre Dame’s least likely All-American since Shane Walton ditched his soccer cleats for the gridiron, Fuller was an unlikely superstar, all but a recruiting afterthought who had a mostly anonymous freshman season before two years of productivity never seen in South Bend.

While Fuller ended up a four-star prospect, he was a regional recruit if there ever was one. Pulled away from a Penn State program that was amidst chaos, Fuller picked Notre Dame over other offers from schools like Boston College, UMass, Rutgers, Temple and Delaware. Like Ronnie Stanley, he was another invite to the Semper Fidelis All-American game—a second-tier All-Star game— but on Signing Day, Kelly sounded like he knew that his staff had landed a big-time talent.

“He’s also a young man that we believe that if there’s a guy that flew under the radar a little bit, it was William Fuller,” Kelly said. “The thing that really clearly stands out is his ball skills. He can run and catch the football. Any time that we got a chance to observe him, he was running and catching, just terrific ball skills. We think as he develops physically, he also has that speed, that top‑end speed that can obviously impact football games.”

Kelly’s crystal ball couldn’t have looked more prescient than it did in that moment. While he only managed to make six catches as a freshman, the 46-yard deep ball Fuller reeled in from Tommy Rees after play-action was a sign of things to come.

Fuller’s development was hardly just an arrow up proposition. The drops that had so many draft analysts talking about his hands plagued him throughout both his prolific sophomore and junior seasons. But even amidst that self-inflicted inconsistency, the game-to-game productivity is astonishing when you look at the two-season run Fuller put together.

You can learn a lot about how little analysts have seen Fuller by the criticisms they lay on him. Ted Ginn? Former top-ten bust Troy Williamson? Fuller’s hardly a one-trick pony—playing opposite DeAndre Hopkins won’t just make life easier for the Texans’ Pro Bowler, it’ll allow Fuller to see man coverage and get back to terrorizing defenses in the screen game as well.

Selected at No. 21 as just the second receiver off the board, Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after just his third season looks to be a great one. With a blazing forty time and his lack of size not changing with another season in college football, Fuller struck while the iron was hot after two of the best receiving seasons we’ve ever seen.

Not bad for a skinny kid out of the Philadelphia Catholic League.

***

Looking for more discussion on Notre Dame’s 2016 NFL Draft (as well as a bunch of other stuff), here’s John Walters and I chopping it up on our latest episode of Blown Coverage. 

 

Path to the draft: Ronnie Stanley

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Your name didn’t have to be Mel Kiper or Mike Mayock to understand that from the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus at Notre Dame he was destined to be an early-round NFL draft pick. But as the dust settles on the Irish’s impressive 2016 draft haul, a look back at the developmental process of the team’s seven draft picks serves as a wonderful testament to Brian Kelly and the program he has built.

Notre Dame’s draftees come in all shapes and sizes. Fifth-year seniors like Nick Martin. Three-and-out stars like Jaylon Smith and Will Fuller. Consistent four-year performers like Sheldon Day and one-year wonders like C.J. Prosise.

But each followed a unique path to the NFL, one that was fostered by a coaching staff that allowed each athlete to develop at their own pace and ascend into a role where an NFL team thought highly enough to select each player in the first 103 picks of the draft.

Let’s take a trip down (recent) memory lane, as we connect the dots from recruitment, development and playing career as we look at Notre Dame’s seven success stories.

 

Ronnie Stanley
No. 6 overall to Baltimore Ravens

The first offensive lineman selected in the 2016 draft, Stanley’s recruitment saw the Irish find their first bit of success at Bishop Gorman High School, leading the way to Nicco Fertitta and Alizé Jones. A four-star prospect who hovered between a Top 100 and Top 250 player depending on the evaluation, Stanley was invited to the Semper Fidelis All-Star game, a second-tier game that all but signified his status outside of the elite, at least on the recruiting circuit.

That’s not how Notre Dame’s coaching staff felt about him, though.

“He’s probably as gifted of an offensive linemen that we have seen in many years,” Kelly said on Signing Day in 2012.

Stanley proved early that Kelly wasn’t blowing smoke. He saw the field in 2012’s first two games, earning reps against Navy and Michigan before he suffered an elbow injury that allowed him to save a year of eligibility.

But even offseason surgery didn’t prevent Stanley from stepping into the starting lineup, flipping to right tackle and playing 13 games in a very successful sophomore campaign across from first rounder Zack Martin.

Even though Stanley was blossoming into one of college football’s best players, we still openly wondered who would slide to fill Martin’s left tackle spot. (That’s how it goes with offensive linemen, their work only truly appreciated by those with either inside information or a coach’s eye of evaluation.)

In his opening comments before spring practice in 2014, Kelly named Steve Elmer, Christian Lombard and Mike McGlinchey as candidates along with Stanley, so it wasn’t necessarily a lock for the staff yet either. But it took just a few practices for the Las Vegas native to solidify his spot on the left side.

Stanley’s first season at left tackle was so solid that some wondered if there’d be two. While some of the online analysts saw Stanley as a potentially elite draft pick, the NFL Advisory Board came back with a second-round grade, perhaps all Stanley needed as he made his decision to stick around for his senior season. Still, Notre Dame took no chance. Kelly, Harry Hiestand and Jack Swarbrick traveled to Las Vegas to sell Stanley on the virtues of a final season in South Bend.

It worked. With a healthy offseason and weight-room gains needed, Stanley stuck to the script and played a mostly anonymous 2015 season. That was a very good thing—only along the offensive line can All-American honors and being named Offensive Player of the Year be considered ho-hum.

Add in the vanilla off-the-field life, and an elite academic profile that’s a comfort to teams investing millions in a potential cornerstone, Stanley’s placement as a Top 10 pick should have never been in doubt. While he lacked the dominance at Notre Dame that we saw from Zack Martin, he possesses athleticism and a body that Martin wasn’t given—a big reason the Cowboys shifted him inside to guard from day one.

Picked instead of Laremy Tunsil amidst a bizarre scenario that’ll go down as one of the draft’s cautionary tales, John Harbaugh talked openly about his relationship with Harry Hiestand and the comfort that came from Notre Dame’s offensive line coach as they pulled the trigger on Stanley. And Stanley, almost epitomizing that faith that the Ravens showed, all but embodied that when he told Joe Flacco in his first visit to Baltimore that he celebrated his selection by heading back to his hotel room and going to sleep.

Counted on by Baltimore to be a key piece of the puzzle as the Ravens look to rebuild an offensive line tasked with protecting a franchise quarterback in his prime, now it’s up to Notre Dame’s highest draft pick since Rick Mirer to continue his ascent.

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
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Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.