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The legend of Manti Te’o just got more complicated

Jan 16, 2013, 10:44 PM EDT

Te'o helmet Getty Images

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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124 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. lrg51 - Jan 17, 2013 at 12:45 PM

    Wonder when Manti will confess…?

  2. mikes1160 - Jan 17, 2013 at 1:13 PM

    lrg51, what a life to be a trolling hater. Haven’t seen you here all year – go away.

  3. mikes1160 - Jan 17, 2013 at 1:32 PM

    It’s time for all of white trash America to chime in…

  4. idratherbeinsouthbend - Jan 17, 2013 at 2:48 PM

    It’s incredibly ironic that many posters don’t think Te’o could be this naive, yet those same posters are completely naive to the fact that this happens to people on the internet daily.

    Catfishing (in the sense that we are speaking about here) is a game….a sport….a challenge…to see who can pull off the biggest, craziest sh!t.

    Why would someone catfish? For the same reason that sinister123 posts on these blogs. It’s the dark self pleasure of tormenting somebody that you don’t know. It just happened to be a somebody you “know” this time.

    Sure, maybe Manti was in on the whole thing, but don’t be so naive to believe that this couldn’t have happened the way he says it did.

  5. nd1975fla - Jan 17, 2013 at 3:16 PM

    At this point, I’m not sure if it was Te’o’s father who said they met at Stanford or if it was Te’o himself. But “innocent until proven guilty” should be the stance of everyone until all the facts come out. Did Manti tell his parents that he actually met her because he knew it would sound creepy to them if he said their relationship was strictly online- certainly a possibility.

    Good people are duped all the time, and in a variety of ways. How many of us could have an electronic & PLATONIC relationship with a significant other- I know I couldn’t, but if we are to believe Te’o, he could and did.

    Either he is one of the greatest liars of all time (which would be an impressive accomplishment for one so young), or he is a naive man-child who deeply wanted to believe in this admittedly unusual love story. But let’s give the guy a break until all the facts are out. I know- hard to do after the Paterno and Armstrong revelations, but their sins do not make Manti guilty.

  6. fnc111 - Jan 17, 2013 at 3:16 PM

    Who knows what to believe at this point? I’m just glad ND wasn’t behind any PR stunt to get Manti the Heisman. Someone is lying and I hope it’s Brian Te’o. Maybe he was just mistaken in that Manti planned on her coming to Hawaii but she always stood him up.

  7. irish2011 - Jan 17, 2013 at 3:23 PM

    Is Manti going to play for ND next year? No!! So can we talk about ND football here, recruits etc… If you wish to talk about this go to Gossip Girls blog.

    • nd1975fla - Jan 17, 2013 at 4:06 PM

      Nice insight (sarcasm), except the article was are all commenting on is titled “The legend of Manti Te’o just got more complicated”. If you didn’t wish to read about Te’o, who admittedly won’t be playing for ND next year, then why are you posting to an article about him? The “comments” section is for comments about THIS ARTICLE.

      If you want to talk about recruits, then post a comment to the Recruits article. No charge for this tutorial, irish2011.

  8. rcali - Jan 17, 2013 at 3:58 PM

    Swarbrick was a little too “All In” for me. Manti may have embarrassed himself and ND but Swarbrick may have done worst damage only getting half the story. There is a lot more to come of this and I think we are all starting to see it. Swarbrick needs to be the smarter person in this situation and not put ND all the way behind Manti until we know EVERYTHING.

  9. irishdog80 - Jan 17, 2013 at 4:31 PM

    A caller on a local sports radio show made a good observation on the Manti Te’o story… Te’o is a devout Mormon at a Catholic school and that it is not that unusual for someone with his religious background to have a long “courtship” and very little physical contact. You only have to look at Collin Klein, who did not even kiss his wife until the day they were married and Tebow as prime examples of an almost “hard to believe” lifestyle in today’s secular world.

    I believe that Te’o told some essentially “innocent” white lies to cover his on-line relationship, but I do not believe that Te’o was a co-conspirator in an elaborate scam to build up Heisman talk for himself. People have to remember that at the time of the tragic news about his grandmother and “girlfriend”, Notre Dame was #20 and facing the daunting task of playing a Top Ten Michigan State squad followed by Michigan, OU, Stanford and #1, at the time, USC. Heisman talk, and Te’o, as a defensive player, was not on anyone’s mind until later.

  10. 1historian - Jan 17, 2013 at 6:16 PM

    Keith – this is the first time I have ever objected to something you wrote.

    It’s the title of the piece.

    What is the “legend” of Manti Te’o? He’s 22 years old, a fine football player, he gets taken in a scam by some really scummy people but only because he is SO gullible. At this point the media, probably (?) encouraged by the all-knowing poobahs at Notre Dame gets caught up in it as do all of you so-called journalists

  11. 1historian - Jan 17, 2013 at 6:18 PM


    He got caught because he is so gullible but this would

  12. 1historian - Jan 17, 2013 at 6:25 PM

    never have happened if just one of you so-called “journalists” had bothered to check the “facts” (hint – there were none) 4 months ago.

    This is not so much a story about Manti Te’o’s being made a fool of as it is about so-called “journalists” being made fools of.

    So there really is no “legend”: of Manti Te’o. Sooner or later there is bound to be a “Ballad of Manti Te’o”, the very thought of which makes me shudder, but – “legend”? Naaah.

    The only question left to answer is when will the ballad be introduced. My money is on the finals of American Idol. Either there or on the Al Sharpton segment of MSNBC.

  13. irish2011 - Jan 17, 2013 at 9:17 PM

    Calm down gramps, If your so worried about his “legend status” then go give him a hug. Or you can go to the National Enquirer with your insights. National signing day is just around the corner trying to focus on future not the past. Keep the change gramps, use it for your depends!

  14. mungman69 - Jan 18, 2013 at 3:25 AM

    I hope that Tso gets his facts together.

  15. oldcat157 - Jan 18, 2013 at 11:26 AM

    Come on writers. Give us another article about this guy. What’s the matter, I’d think reporters would be all over this tearing this guy apart. Boy, did he take you all for a spin or not this seasons with his lies. I can imagine you know what it’s like to be punked. Good lessons learned though, gotta follow up on your info before reporting it.

  16. lrg51 - Jan 18, 2013 at 1:45 PM

    Heard on late night TV…

    Manti Te’o girlfriend may be the biggest hoax since Notre Dame was ranked #1 in college football.


  17. dickasman - Jan 18, 2013 at 1:56 PM

    Karma is a biatch guys. So now I know the players that were involved in previous embarrassment. Zeke motta, manti teo.

    Karma is a batch and notre dame is paying for it. To quoth Macbeth, we desarves it!

  18. dickasman - Jan 18, 2013 at 2:05 PM

    One advice to everyone on this board. Delete Facebook. Delete twitter. Save humanity. I did. Couldn’t be happier, you will be too!

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