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The legend of Manti Te’o just got more complicated

Jan 16, 2013, 10:44 PM EST

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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