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I still believe in Manti Te’o

Jan 19, 2013, 2:17 AM EDT

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I still believe in Manti Te’o.

I’m not sure what that says about me. Certainly something different than yesterday, when the story had Te’o pegged as a co-conspirator in one of the strangest most depressing stories to come out of the sports world in a long, long time. Yet I can’t shake the fact that I believe in Te’o, enough to look past a story and timeline that has people quickly mixing up the heroes and villains.

But ever since Deadspin dropped one of the biggest bombs of the year  — and the mainstream media scampered to cover its tracks — Te’o has been in the crosshairs of not just sports fans, but Americans everywhere. The bizarre hoax has transfixed millions of people, and spurred almost as many conspiracy theories, with nearly all of them turning people against the Hawaiian linebacker with a story that turned out to be too good to be true.

Make no mistake, I’m waiting to hear from Te’o. And I’m hoping he comes as clean as possible. That means phone records, photos, and a more than candid presentation of the facts, however awkward, embarrassing or terrible they might make him feel or look.

But if this story does anything, it should force all of us to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Because there’s something terribly wrong with the reaction this story drew, and the almost universal vilification of a kid that’s stood for everything that’s right about sports.

If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, it hasn’t seen sports fans (or writers) yet. Because there’s no other way to explain how only 14 percent of Americans can think Te’o’s an innocent victim in this, with the rest of the country so quickly turning on the star linebacker, even before hearing his side of the story.

***

For all the incredible work Deadspin did in its initial reporting, it did no favors to Te’o, casting immediate skepticism on the All-American, including this dagger that all but served as the subtext needed to insinuate Te’o was in on it from the start.

A friend of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo told us he was “80 percent sure” that Manti Te’o was “in on it,” and that the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua’s death with publicity in mind. According to the friend, there were numerous photos of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and Te’o together on Tuiasosopo’s now-deleted Instagram account.

The sheer quantity of falsehoods about Manti’s relationship with Lennay makes that friend, and another relative of Ronaiah’s, believe Te’o had to know the truth. Mostly, though, the friend simply couldn’t believe that Te’o would be stupid enough—or Ronaiah Tuiasosopo clever enough—to sustain the relationship for nearly a year.

An anonymous friend of the villain that orchestrated the hoax is hardly on objective bystander. But that didn’t stop Deadspin from using the quote effectively, framing the story in its final paragraphs to cast Te’o as man that lived life like a man in disguise.

From there, only Notre Dame’s response advanced the story. Speaking candidly for almost an hour, athletic director Jack Swarbrick backed Te’o strongly, while also laying out the fact pattern that is now well established. Te’o allegedly received a call from the phone number he recognized as that belonging to Lennay Kekua on December 6th. A series of calls continued, with Te’o trying to find out if the voice on the phone belonged to the girlfriend he thought had died months earlier. In the midst of a whirlwind awards circuit that had Te’o zig-zagging across the country for 11 days, Te’o came to the sick realization that he had been conned.

“Manti was the perfect mark because he is a guy who is so willing to believe in others and so ready to help,” Swarbrick said. “As this hoax played out in a way that called upon those tendencies of Manti and roped him more and more into the trap.”

***

How could Te’o fall in love with a girl that doesn’t exist?

That’s a question worth asking. And one that Catfish star and documentarian Nev Schulman knows quite a bit about. His film, about a serious relationship with a fictional person, sparked an outbreak of “catfishing,” a practice where people set out to create a fake persona to pursue an online relationship, often times with malicious intent.

Schulman has seen his popularity explode recently, gaining over 20,000 new followers on Twitter in the 24 hours after Te’o’s story broke. Schulman talked about how someone like Te’o could fall so deeply into this relationship, with a person he’d never physically met.

“It seems very easy to look at a series of events and say, ‘Wow, look at how these things compiled together didn’t seem clear that this is somehow a hoax or fake,'” Schulman told USA Today. “But for people living this story and communicating on a day-to-day basis and receiving lots of information, much of which is insignificant – like, I’m painting my nails or I’m just walking my dog – all of those regular day-to-day stuff, they simply get mixed in with all of the dramatic red flag events. At the time, it doesn’t seem like such an unusual thing and then a couple weeks go by and nothing happens and then something else happens.

“It looks like whoever is behind all of this either followed Manti’s career closely or may have in fact known him because they had a way of missing him, that they had met and that perhaps they had been at certain events together. And I’m sure they used specific reference that they either found through social media, fan pages or Instagram feeds, to indicate that there was a real, physical closeness at times.”

As someone that’s witnessed the scene surrounding Te’o after football games, it’s very likely this was the entry point used to sink the hook into Te’o. The linebacker is often mobbed after games even away from South Bend — especially on West Coast trips where extended family is often present — giving ample opportunity for a guy like Tuiasosopo to build a plausible backstory. Te’o often times looks like a Mayor after a game, kissing babies and shaking hands, meeting family and strangers at the same time. And in the Polynesian culture, sometimes those things aren’t mutually exclusive.

It’s no surprise that Te’o’s relationship flourished on the internet. The internet has a high proliferation of dating sites aimed at the Mormon community. One popular dating has over 500,000 online profiles, a staggering number when you consider there’s only six million Mormons in the United States. As a college kid thousands of miles and five hours ahead of his home, tucked into a Midwestern town with a student body predominantly Catholic, where exactly did you expect Te’o to turn for a relationship?

***

Perhaps what made Te’o’s story explode so quickly was the conspiratorial nature of it all. Was he in on it? Did he help promote his story for his own gain? Was this all part of some master plan?

Manti Te’o has always believed in a master plan. But it started well before anyone had heard the name Lennay Kekua.

To know Te’o is to know a young man steadfast in his beliefs. Even before most of the college football watching country started to notice, Te’o was living life in accordance to his Heavenly Father. He has often talked about a message from above that helped him select Notre Dame on Signing Day. Dead set on attending USC and continuing the long line of Hawaiian and Polynesian greats, Te’o chose Notre Dame quite simply because God told him to go to South Bend.

That same faith based approach led him to bypassing his Mormon mission, an announcement he made after a long consultation with his family and the local bishop in South Bend.

“This was probably the biggest decision that I’ve had to face in my entire life. I knew the impact of my decision could have a positive influence on those who follow me and those who watch what I do,” Te’o said back in December 2009. I always want to have a positive influence on them. I just thought that I was sent to Notre Dame for a purpose and that is a purpose I have to devote to.”

Those sentiments were echoed when Te’o surprised many and decided to come back for his senior season, making the announcement even before he consulted with the NFL’s advisory board.

“This was a tough decision, and I found myself praying about it often,” Te’o said last December. “Ultimately, I really want to experience my senior year at Notre Dame. The happiest moments so far in my life have come when I am spending time with people I love. I wanted to spend another year with my teammates and the coaches on our team. I don’t think any sum of money can replace the memories I can create in my senior year.”

For the critics that accused Te’o of using this season as a platform to promote himself, Te’o has used these four years at Notre Dame to do that. But he’s done that by being a “humble servant,” embracing the quiet moments he’s spent doing community outreach just as much as he’s enjoyed any national attention. And Te’o has never been bashful about the pride he carried not just for himself, but for those back home on the islands of Hawaii.

“My main thing is to show the kids back home that we can step out of that bubble,” Te’o said. “Hawai’i is such a comfortable place to be, and you don’t want to leave. For us kids who grew up there, it’s definitely hard to leave. When you leave Hawai’i, it’s far, and so for us to leave that nest is definitely something that’s very difficult.”

That step away from the bubble and into the spotlight led to the situation Te’o finds himself in now. That openness led him to take in someone like Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a young man seemingly not all that different from Te’o. From a family strong of faith (his father runs a church in Southern California), and with a family name synonymous with football excellence, there’s little wonder Te’o extended his online friendship to a guy that he seemed to have so much in common with.

Yet we now know that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was the last person Te’o should trust. While Tuiasosopo is still in hiding and not speaking publicly, his friends have told ESPN that he’s confessed to the malicious stunt that’s gone on for years. He also seems prone to pathological lies. During an audition for NBC’s hit television series The Voice, Tuiasosopo engineered a similar story to the one he crafted for Te’o, telling producers that the Christian band he started got into a deadly car accident on their way to a performance. It wasn’t enough to land him a spot on the show.

On Friday, those close to Tuiasosopo came clean about their knowledge of his plot. After serving as anonymous sources for Deadspin, two witness spoke to ESPN’s Shelley Smith on the record, with one recanting the damning “80 percent” judgment that all but had people convinced Te’o was in on this from the start. That proclamation seemed especially confusing considering Tuiasosopo tried to pull the same scam on the witnesses own cousin.

“When I found out about the Samoan football player and his girlfriend, his Grandma died the same day, I was like, ‘Whoa this is crazy,’ I feel so bad for him, so I just looked him up,” J.R. Vaosa told ESPN. “I found out his girlfriend’s name was Lennay Kekua. And right when I read the name Lennay Kekua, I immediately thought of Ronaiah. Then I thought of my cousin. That this has to be the same person.”

Up until Vaosa and Celeste Tuioti-Mariner came forward, skepticism still carried the day. Reporters like CBS Sports’ Gregg Doyel were damned to be fooled again by Te’o.

“Nothing about this story has been comprehensible, or logical, and that extends to what happens next,” Doyel wrote. “I cannot comprehend Manti Te’o saying anything that could make me believe he was a victim.”

Even after Te’o’s initial statement confessed to the embarrassment of being duped by an elaborate hoax, there was nothing that’d change Doyel’s mind. In the middle of an already sensational senior season, it was suddenly far more plausible that Te’o concocted a tale about a fake dead girlfriend to boost his Q-rating than the simple fact that he fell in love with a girl tailor-made for him.

***

No matter the end of this story, Te’o will ultimately be branded for this incident for the rest of his life. No longer will he be remembered for his record-setting career and historic senior season that turned him into one of the most decorated players ever. The multiple national awards Te’o earned will be replaced by one that’ll never go on his mantel: Sucker of the Year.

Te’o is only now responding to the calls for comment. Spending two-plus hours with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, any explanation that comes from Te’o will likely only satisfy some of the people that spent the past two days making up their minds. But that didn’t keep Schaap from saying this about Te’o.

“I don’t know how many questions I asked, but he answered every one of them,” Schaap said. “He admitted to a couple of mistakes along the way.”

The biggest being the fact that he never went out of his way to explain to reporters that the girl that he had been talking to almost nightly since April was one that he had never met in person.

“I even knew that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn’t meet, and that people find out that this girl who died I was so invested in, and I didn’t meet her,” Schaap recounted Te’o saying late Friday night. “So he kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away.”

Embarrassment of an online relationship. A feeling shared by many that kindle deep feelings before ever meeting someone. Yet an all too plausible explanation that makes perfect sense, even if it doesn’t uncover the deep dark secret people so desperately wanted after these last few days.  And while there are those still clinging to the December 6th date where Te’o heard from someone claiming to be Kekua, Te’o didn’t truly believe that the girl he loved didn’t exist until just two days ago.

“He was not fully convinced that Lennay Kekua did not exist until two days ago, when he heard from Ronaiah Tuiasosopo,” Schaap said.

Te’o’s story will eventually be categorized as just another cautionary tale and likely fade into the next big national controversy. But it shouldn’t stop all of us from taking a second to remember that it’s far more important to be right, than to be first or loudest.

For many, this won’t end with Te’o’s explanation. Little will convince them — either way — that Te’o was either an innocent pawn in a sick and twisted game or a chess master caught exploiting a media machine for his gain.

But I still believe in Manti Te’o. If only because I’ve spent four years watching him grow up, making his message to Tuiasosopo all the more predictable.

“I hope he learns,” Te’o told ESPN. “I hope he understands what he’s done. I don’t wish an ill thing to somebody. I just hope he learns. I think embarrassment is big enough.”

“I’ll be okay. As long as my family’s okay, I’ll be fine.”

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