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 24, 2014, 5:42 PM EDT
Notre Dame broke the mold when they signed offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey. With a body better suited for Mike Brey’s hardwood, the Philadelphia native looked like a developmental project when he pledged his commitment to Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at Notre Dame’s starting right tackle.
Jul 24, 2014, 3:54 PM EDT
Wide receiver Will Mahone, whose future at Notre Dame is still uncertain, was sentenced to 10 days in Mahoning County jail on Wednesday stemming from an arrest in June. Mahone has been indefinitely suspended from the football team by Brian Kelly and is not enrolled at the university.
Jul 23, 2014, 9:25 PM EDT
Against just about all odds, senior Cam McDaniel led the Irish in rushing in 2013. Our latest installment in the Irish A-to-Z looks at the veteran running back, who now battles sophomores Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston for carries.
Jul 23, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT
In case you haven’t been following along on social media, the installation of Notre Dame’s new synthetic surface is nearly complete. With the team from FieldTurf working this week to lay down the playing field, the Irish will have a playable field to practice on when camp begins on August 4
Jul 22, 2014, 7:17 PM EDT
A recruiting cycle before Notre Dame went hunting late for big bodies to play along the defensive line, they signed a player who might be able to fit that mold in 2014. Fresh off a redshirt, Jacob Matuska has the chance to add some much needed size and strength to Brian VanGorder’s defensive line.
Jul 22, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT
The founding member of the 2014 recruiting class, linebacker Greer Martini enters a football program that looks decidedly different than the one he committed to back in July of 2012. Irish A-to-Z continues as we look at the freshman inside linebacker.
Jul 21, 2014, 3:22 PM EDT
No, he’s not his brother. But center Nick Martin should solidify his standing as one of the top centers in the country in 2014. After an injury ended his debut season in the starting lineup early, Martin returns healthy after knee surgery, giving Notre Dame a key anchor in the middle of Harry Hiestand’s offensive line.
Jul 21, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT
After losing Troy Niklas and Alex Welch from the depth chart, Notre Dame needed to restock a position that’s been very kind to the Irish over the past few years. Irish A-to-Z continues with freshman tight end Tyler Luatua.
Jul 20, 2014, 4:46 PM EDT
A year after contributing as a freshman, Cole Luke’s assignment will be a bit more ambitious in 2014. One of three cornerbacks who is expected to play major minutes, Irish A-to-Z continues with the sophomore cover man.
Jul 19, 2014, 5:01 PM EDT
One of four graduate students on the Irish roster, Christian Lombard feels like he’s been a part of the Notre Dame football program for a long time. As one of Charlie Weis’ earliest commitments in the 2010 class, Lombard has seen coaching changes, position switches and injury challenges in his five years in South Bend.
Jul 19, 2014, 3:24 PM EDT
After two underwhelming seasons in South Bend, Ben Koyack finally emerged as a legitimate threat late last season. And with Troy Niklas’ unexpected departure to the NFL, Koyack has a chance to be the next in a line of impressive tight ends playing on Sundays. The Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at Notre Dame’s starting tight end.
Jul 17, 2014, 3:04 PM EDT
With just two other scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, incoming freshman DeShone Kizer begins his college career a bit closer to the playing field than any head coach would like. Our latest in Irish A-to-Z looks at Notre Dame’s quarterback from the 2014 recruiting class.
Jul 17, 2014, 12:27 PM EDT
Injuries to Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke gave Jarron Jones his shot at a new position. The rising junior took advantage of his opportunities. Our next installment in Irish A-to-Z takes a look at Notre Dame’s new starting defensive tackle.
Jul 16, 2014, 6:06 PM EDT
When Notre Dame added Torii Hunter Jr. to the roster on Signing Day 2013, the Irish did more than just add another famous father to the family section at Notre Dame Stadium. Our next installment on Irish A-to-Z looks at a rising sophomore who is healthy after entering Notre Dame with a major injury.
Jul 16, 2014, 5:17 PM EDT
Few football programs need a press release to discuss the markings on their home football field. But after months of wonderment by certain segments of the Irish football fanbase, the athletic department gave us an early “look” at what the new synthetic playing surface will look like when Notre Dame takes the field this fall.
Jul 15, 2014, 12:43 PM EDT
Entering his senior season, Chase Hounshell’s career has been defined by what’s kept him off the field, not his performance on it. Our next installment in Irish A-to-Z looks closer at the Ohio native who has battled back from multiple shoulder injuries.
Jul 15, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT
Everett Golson spent part of last week as a counselor at the Elite 11 quarterback camp, held at Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. And while he earned rave reviews for his work on the playing field as an instructor, he also earned more than his fair share of kudos for his maturity off of it.
Jul 14, 2014, 6:15 PM EDT
While TJ Jones is gone, Notre Dame might have signed a receiver that looks and plays an awful lot like him in incoming freshman Corey Holmes. Irish A-to-Z continues with the incoming freshman receiver from Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the elite programs in the country.
Jul 13, 2014, 8:45 AM EDT
One of the last players on Notre Dame’s radar during the 2014 recruiting cycle was Kolin Hill. Our next installment in the Irish A-to-Z series takes a look at the incoming freshman from Texas.