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.”
Jul 3, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
Anonymous long-snappers are the best kind of long snappers. And for the better part of two seasons, Scott Daly was exactly that. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at a man who is no longer anonymous.
Jul 2, 2015, 1:05 PM EDT
Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class added a big commitment from Florida offensive lineman Parker Boudreaux today. One of the country’s top interior linemen chose Notre Dame in a online video done in collaboration with Bleacher Report.
Jul 2, 2015, 11:11 AM EDT
Great football players come in all shapes and sizes. Incoming freshman Shaun Crawford will likely prove that. The diminutive cornerback comes to South Bend looking to make a big impact.
Jul 1, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT
When you look at Notre Dame’s 2015 schedule, it’s hard to skip past the Irish’s trip to Clemson. Returning to Death Valley for the first time since Joe Montana led a comeback victory in 1977, Brian Kelly’s squad will take on Dabo Swinney’s impressive team, the makings of a football game with College Football Playoff implications. Shakin’ the Southland’s Brian Lewis gets us up to speed.
Jul 1, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
While Jerry Tillery stole the headlines, fellow classmate Te’von Coney more than held his own this spring. The linebacker may have entered a packed depth chart at linebacker, but he solidified his place as a key cog in the future plans of Notre Dame’s defense.
Jun 30, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
Hailing from the same high school that brought the Irish Malik Zaire, incoming freshman Nick Coleman looks to infuse the same type of unlikely toughness to the secondary that Zaire brings to the quarterback position. Irish A-to-Z rolls on.
Jun 30, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
Irish A-to-Z continues with Amir Carlisle. The winding on-field journey for the fifth year senior ends in 2015.
Jun 29, 2015, 6:00 PM EDT
Florida safety Spencer Perry committed to Notre Dame on Monday, a week after visiting campus for the Irish Invasion camp. The move followed Perry’s de-commitment from in-state power Florida, taking the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder from a Gator pledge to a member of Notre Dame’s rapidly growing 2016 recruiting class.
Jun 29, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT
One of the last members of Notre Dame’s 2014 recruiting class was one of the first people to make an impact on the field. Defensive tackle Daniel Cage is next in Irish A-to-Z.
Jun 29, 2015, 11:32 AM EDT
News broke Monday morning that running back Greg Bryant will be suspended for the first four games of the season. As first-reported by Irish 247, Bryant will miss a quarter of the regular season based on the dreaded-and-ambiguous “violation of team rules,” thinning a running back depth chart that was already down to just Bryant, returning starter Tarean Folston and converted wide receiver C.J. Prosise.
Jun 29, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
Like the rest of his classmates along the offensive line, Jimmy Byrne spent 2014 learning the ropes and hitting the weight room. Redshirt off, Irish A-to-Z continues with the Ohio native.
Jun 26, 2015, 10:28 PM EDT
Texas tight end Brock Wright has committed to Notre Dame, adding another elite recruit to the Irish tight end pipeline. Wright is a 2017 prospect who camped in South Bend last week for Irish Invasion.
Jun 26, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
With KeiVarae Russell suspended and Cody Riggs hurt, Devin Butler got his chance to be a starting cornerback. It wasn’t necessarily a positive experience. We look ahead to an important season for the junior defensive back.
Jun 26, 2015, 11:07 AM EDT
After a difficult three-game stretch to start Notre Dame’s season, the Irish will welcome UMass to South Bend, a game that was originally intended to match up former Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar with his previous employer.
Jun 25, 2015, 6:07 PM EDT
An Irish Illustrated report says that Notre Dame might add a piece to the 2016 recruiting class, with touted offensive lineman and one-time Ohio State commit Mirko Jurkovic Jr. in the crosshairs.
Jun 25, 2015, 2:24 PM EDT
Greg Bryant has yet to play up to the 5-star status he entered South Bend possessing. Now for the good news: He’s got three more seasons to try.
Jun 24, 2015, 4:44 PM EDT
Chris Brown enters his senior season in South Bend, still looking to build on a magical start. Irish A-to-Z rolls along, knowing that we’ve got a long way to go before the start of the season.
Jun 24, 2015, 3:04 PM EDT
There are good debut seasons. And then there are debut seasons like the one Justin Brent just had. Let’s take a closer look at the sophomore receiver as Irish A-to-Z continues.
Jun 24, 2015, 1:43 PM EDT
Last year, Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech team burst onto the scene, nearly wrestling the ACC championship away from Florida State in a primetime showdown. While the Yellow Jackets didn’t pull out the victory, they sprinted away from Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl and won by double-digits, capping off an 11-win season.
Jun 23, 2015, 4:16 PM EDT
Notre Dame’s quick-growing 2016 recruiting class is adding another familiar name. Rochester defensive end Jamir Jones, brother of starting defensive tackle Jarron Jones, committed to the Irish coaching staff on Tuesday, fresh off receiving his offer. He joins Julian Okwara—brother of Romeo—as younger siblings of Irish players in the 2016 recruiting class.