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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Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.