Jan 16, 2013, 10:44 PM EDT
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.”
Sep 19, 2014, 2:46 PM EDT
As summer officially ends after this weekend, Notre Dame fans get one last uninterrupted Saturday to soak it in. So while the Irish are off, let’s take a look at who Notre Dame’s future opponents are playing and then get to the mailbag.
Sep 18, 2014, 1:22 PM EDT
Over the weekend, Brian Kelly talked candidly about finding a better performance from his offensive line. With talented personnel that’s still finding its identity after Zack Martin and Chris Watt graduated, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand have an off week to find the five optimal starters — and their positions — before taking on Syracuse next weekend.
Sep 18, 2014, 11:31 AM EDT
Questions before a weekend without Notre Dame football? Drop them below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Sep 17, 2014, 1:36 PM EDT
After missing the first three games of the season, the fate of DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams is still up in the air. After announcing an official investigation into academic dishonesty in mid-August, updates on the status of the five players have been limited to head coach Brian Kelly’s weekly loop of uncertainty.
Sep 16, 2014, 11:59 AM EDT
With the Irish getting a much needed Saturday off, we won’t hear from Brian Kelly until he’s previewing Syracuse for us next weekend. But with one quarter of the season in the books, let’s take a look at some of the surprises after three games, digging deep in to the stats after victories over Rice, Michigan and Purdue.
Sep 15, 2014, 12:36 PM EDT
It’s still way too early.
I’ll type it again: It’s still way too early. But with one quarter of Notre Dame’s football season behind them, the Irish’s path to the first ever College Football Playoff looks wide open.
Sep 14, 2014, 11:08 PM EDT
Don’t tell me you wouldn’t take it. Notre Dame, entering their first off week at 3-0. The offense, averaging a hearty 36.3 points a game. The defense, giving up just 10.3 points a game.
Sep 14, 2014, 1:32 AM EDT
After two weekends of crisp, mistake-free football, Notre Dame walked into Lucas Oil Stadium expecting to roll over Purdue. And they played like it.
Sep 13, 2014, 5:13 PM EDT
With two victories behind them in impressive fashion, Notre Dame has a chance to start September with three straight victories for the second time in three seasons. Off to a clean start, the Irish are tied for the best in the nation in turnover margin, sitting pretty at +6 heading into Saturday night’s game.
Sep 13, 2014, 1:48 PM EDT
As usual, for those of you away from the TV on Saturday night, we’ve got your covered. Notre Dame’s primetime affair with Purdue will air not just on NBC at 7:30 p.m., but will be hosted as part of the NBC Live Extra app, as well as online at NBCSports.com
Sep 12, 2014, 4:20 PM EDT
With the festivities already started in Indianapolis, let’s empty the mailbag before tomorrow night’s Shamrock Series game against Purdue.
Sep 12, 2014, 3:26 AM EDT
It’s that time of year again. The annual Shamrock Series. For a program built upon tradition and history, consider the Shamrock Series something similar — only started five years ago. (So maybe not that similar at all.)
Sep 11, 2014, 5:52 PM EDT
With a betting line that’s hovering just above four touchdowns, this weekend’s Shamrock Series game looks like it could be the most lopsided matchup since the series premiere against Washington State. But if the last five years tell us anything, expect the unexpected against Purdue.
Sep 10, 2014, 5:58 PM EDT
Two weeks in and we’ve got plenty to talk about. So if you’ve got questions on Shamrock Series, Purdue, the end of Michigan, or anything else… Drop it in the comments or hit me on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Sep 10, 2014, 5:28 PM EDT
With his team 2-0 and looking well positioned to get out of September undefeated, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was a guest on Jim Rome’s radio show Wednesday afternoon. The Irish head coach shared some interesting thoughts, while also being very candid about the Irish’s 31-0 defeat of Michigan.
Sep 10, 2014, 12:03 PM EDT
For the second week in a row, we’ll be up late watching Notre Dame, only this Saturday it may be tough to decipher who the Fighting Irish are. Travis Miller of SBNation’s Hammer & Rails gets us ready for Purdue, as this year’s Shamrock Series kicks off this weekend.
Sep 9, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT
As Brian Kelly pointed out on Saturday night, the decisive victory over Michigan counts as only one win. So while Saturday night’s game against Purdue looks like one of the more lopsided on the Irish schedule, consider the past two matchups.
Sep 8, 2014, 7:33 PM EDT
During the postgame interviews, it was hard for players to hide the joy they were feeling. For a team that’s struggled to beat Michigan in the past, the 31-0 victory certainly earned the Irish every minute of the 24 hours they planned to celebrate.
Sep 8, 2014, 1:37 PM EDT
Fresh off his 10 tackle performance and leading Notre Dame to a 31-0 shutout of Michigan, linebacker Jaylon Smith earned a nomination for the Lott IMPACT Player of the Week award.
Sep 7, 2014, 11:00 PM EDT
As the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry takes an indefinite break, the Irish’s most lopsided victory in the series leaves the programs in two very different places. Even as Brian Kelly plays 19 first-year contributors (true and redshirt freshmen), the Irish won all three phases of the game. Let’s look at the good, the bad and the ugly.
- It’s still way too early, but Notre Dame’s path is open to CFB Playoff 129
- The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Purdue 61
- Five things we learned: Notre Dame 30, Purdue 14 81
- Pregame Six Pack: An all Hoosiers Shamrock Series 39
- And in that corner… The Purdue Boilermakers 41
- Even after shutout, Irish hope best is yet to come for young D 69