I still believe in Manti Te’o

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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.”

Notre Dame will face South Carolina in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30

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Notre Dame and South Carolina will meet for the first time in nearly 40 years in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 30 at 3:30 ET (ABC). The Irish and Gamecocks have not played since 1984, a South Carolina win in South Bend. That was part of Notre Dame’s struggles (going 12-11 in 1984 and 1985) that led to Lou Holtz being hired; Holtz, of course, went on to coach the Gamecocks for six seasons after he left the Irish.

Though the No. 21 Irish (8-4) finished the season strongly, including competing gamely at USC a week ago in a 38-27 loss, a driving storyline over the next month will be wondering if head coach Marcus Freeman can handle this bowl game better than the second half of the Fiesta Bowl faceplant last year in his first game as Notre Dame’s leader.

No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) enjoyed an even more impressive finish to the season, knocking both Tennessee and Clemson out of the College Football Playoff in its final two games of the season. Not that gambling spreads mean anything on the football field, but to give an idea how unexpected those two wins were, realize the Gamecocks were expected to lose them by a combined 37.5 points and instead won them by a combined 26 points.

There may be some rough parallels between South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer and Freeman, though Beamer is a year ahead in his head-coaching career.

Beamer was an unexpected hire in Columbia in 2021, never having been a head coach before and most recently the associate head coach and tight ends coach at Oklahoma for three seasons. The Gamecocks went 7-6 in his first year, his head-coaching inexperience perhaps rearing its head as they lost their first three games against Power-Five competition and four of their first five, the exception coming against worse-off Vanderbilt.

Thus, the surge to end the 2022 season stands out, particularly since it again took until October to notch a win against a Power-Five opponent, losing to both Arkansas and, more understandably, Georgia in September.

South Carolina found its most success this season through the air, led by former Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. He averaged 230.5 yards per game and 7.9 yards per attempt while completing 66.6 percent of his passes. The Gamecocks managed just 123.3 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per attempt.

Their rushing defense is one of the worst in the country, which could play right into the Irish offensive strength. Opponents gained 0.194 expected points per rush attempt against South Carolina, the No. 123 ranking in the country, per cfb-graphs.com.

Notre Dame fell to Ohio State, 21-10, to open Freeman’s genuine tenure, a worthwhile loss though one quickly diminished when the Irish fell to Marshall just a week later. Of course, the Buckeyes’ relied on that season-opening win to successfully burgeon their Playoff résumé today.

The Irish already know they will be without both senior cornerback Cam Hart and junior quarterback Drew Pyne in the bowl game. Hart announced last week he will return for a fifth season at Notre Dame, but a shoulder injury will sideline him this month, while Pyne announced Friday he intends to enter the transfer portal, presumably when it officially opens tomorrow.

Star tight end Michael Mayer will almost certainly opt out of the bowl game, his top-20 draft stock assured, and senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey could logically, as well.

Notre Dame nearly ended up in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 28, per reports. The ACC could place the Irish in any of three bowls, the top tier of ACC-affiliated bowls below the Orange Bowl, with some input from the bowls and from the University. That give-and-take seemingly delayed the announcement for a stretch of Sunday.

Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility

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Notre Dame may start its third quarterback of the season in its bowl game after junior Drew Pyne announced he will transfer from the program on Friday. A graduate, Pyne has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported Pyne’s intention to transfer, with Pyne soon thereafter taking to Twitter to confirm as much.

“One of my proudest honors is to have been a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame,” Pyne wrote. “… It’s time for me to take on a new challenge, and I will be entering the transfer portal.”

Pyne took over as the Irish starter after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second week of the season. Pyne went 8-2 as a starter, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

His final action at Notre Dame may have been Pyne’s best game of his career, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns at USC while completing 23 of 26 passes, the second-most accurate game in Irish history.

He appeared in two games in 2021, stepping in for Jack Coan when he struggled against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. Keeping Pyne to minimal appearances in 2021 was intentional, preserving a season of eligibility for him.

That eligibility will now be used elsewhere.

Without Pyne, Notre Dame will have freshman Steve Angeli and possibly Buchner available in the bowl game, a location and opponent to be announced on Sunday. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported Friday afternoon that Buchner will play in the bowl game, though perhaps that optimism should be measured throughout practice this month.

Regardless, the Irish are expected to pursue an incoming transfer quarterback this month. With names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong already in the transfer portal, Notre Dame will have a few options to chase.

That is why Pyne’s transfer makes sense, even if he spoke earnestly about the bowl game following that 38-27 loss in Los Angeles.

“I think we have a lot to play for,” he said. “We’re going to be in a bowl game, I want to send all the seniors out the right way. We have a lot to play for. We have another game, I’m going to prepare as hard as I can for that and finish the season off on a positive note.”

Reversing course from those words is understandable given they came minutes after a competitive game, and the last week has shown Pyne how quickly the quarterback transfer market will move.

In the game of musical chairs that is quarterbacks moving across the country, Pyne waiting until after the bowl game to transfer could serve only to leave him with fewer destinations as options. Not that Pyne may have been looking at Iowa, but the fact that one Power Five starting gig appears to have already been filled by Michigan transfer Cade McNamara presumably underscored the rapid nature of this process.

Understandably, Pyne needs to make the most of this opportunity, coming off a strong season as Notre Dame’s starter but knowing he is unlikely to start for the Irish in 2023. Depending on the level of transfer joining the Irish and Buchner’s health, it was distinctly possible Pyne would be Notre Dame’s third quarterback next year.

For someone who grew up as a Notre Dame fan, specifically a Brady Quinn fan, assuredly this decision was not an easy one for Pyne.

He had a lengthy and notable offer sheet coming out of high school, but Pyne at his best this season would not draw interest from the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU as he did three years ago. It may be more pertinent to point out he is a Connecticut native, so schools in the northeast could be most logical for his landing spot.

The Irish should also have quarterback commit Kenny Minchey in the pecking order this spring, expected to sign with Notre Dame on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s QB room creates a friendly trust that has been crucial to Pyne’s success
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback

Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need

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Notre Dame is addressing its most glaring roster deficiency with a numbers approach. The Irish had only five true scholarship receivers for much of this season, a number they will nearly match in next year’s freshman class alone after adding a fourth receiver commitment on Thursday. Consensus three-star receiver Kaleb Smith (Rick Reedy High School; Frisco, Texas) announced he will join Notre Dame’s class, and he should sign with the Irish on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

Smith was committed to Texas Tech for more than nine months before he backed off that pledge in early November. Marcus Freeman does not welcome official visitors who are committed to other programs, so if Smith wanted to take an official visit to South Bend to watch Notre Dame play Clemson, he needed to open up his recruitment.

The Irish 35-13 win against the then-No. 4 Tigers assuredly helped tip the scales away from his homestate Texas Tech.

Otherwise, Smith has hardly been recruited by anyone. The only other Power Five program to chase him was Baylor when current Notre Dame receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was there.

Listed at only 6-foot and 168 pounds, it is easy to pencil in Smith as a slot receiver, but he is also willing to go up in the air to get the ball. His highlight footage features him repeatedly and astonishingly open.

His size, or lack thereof, will make Smith unique among the quartet of incoming signees. By snagging four receivers in this class, the Irish are proactively fixing an undeniable roster problem. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame had only four receivers available. Through most of this season, in part due to injuries to Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins, the Irish had a total of six receivers available, including former walk-on Matt Salerno.

While Braden Lenzy will not return for the Irish in 2023, current sophomores Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles should all come back, along with current freshman Tobias Merriweather. With these four commitments, a position group of eight may allow Notre Dame to have a genuine two-deep.

If signing four receivers in a class and seven in two years seems like an unsustainable influx, keep in mind two things. First of all, the Irish desperately need to find receiver depth. Lenzy was famously and admittedly exhausted at the end of that Fiesta Bowl faceplant 11 months ago. One more injury this season would have further crippled Notre Dame’s passing game in 2022. Secondly, the one-time transfer allowance will make departures from the program both more common and more alluring to the players. Natural attrition will occur.

RELATED READING: A third four-star receiver commitment, Jaden Greathouse, elevates Notre Dame’s class of 2023 from good to Great
Four-star receiver Rico Flores Jr.’s commitment gives Notre Dame some receiver hope for 2023
Four-star Texas receiver Braylon James gives Notre Dame needed offensive piece in class of 2023

CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Perhaps earlier than expected, Notre Dame has already received good news this offseason. Senior cornerback Cam Hart will return for a fifth year in South Bend, though he will not put on pads for the Irish in any bowl game, he announced Tuesday evening.

“Due to a shoulder injury that I sustained during the Boston College Game [sic], I could not participate in our final regular season game and will not be able to participate in this year’s bowl game,” Hart wrote on Twitter. “Consequently, I believe my time here isn’t necessarily complete. Choosing to attend the University of Nore Dame has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.

“In light of that, I’ve decided to return for a fifth season and look forward to taking the field with my brothers in 2023!”

Hart’s 2023 return should give the Irish four returning cornerbacks with starting experience, only fifth-year nickel back Tariq Bracy a notable departure from this year’s cornerbacks group.

Note: The use of “should” is not meant to imply anything about other possibilities. The conditional verb is chosen as recognition of the constantly changing rosters in college football in 2022.

Hart took part in Notre Dame’s Senior Day festivities before facing Boston College, which suggested he was at least considering jumping to the NFL. This quick announcement indicates the injury ruled out that thought process, though the injury had plagued him at points earlier in the season.

A shoulder injury first flared up for Hart this year in the spring of 2022, costing him spring practices. A concern had previously cost him some of 2019, as he adapted from playing receiver in high school. He nonetheless played in 11 games in 2022, starting 10 and making 25 tackles with three for loss and breaking up four passes.

His passes defensed fell from nine in 2021, along with two interceptions, in part because opposing quarterbacks were less enticed to test the increasingly-experienced cornerback. His 6-foot-2 ½ length made Hart something just short of a shutdown cornerback.

With current freshman Benjamin Morrison surging to close this season and classmate Jaden Mickey stepping in for Hart at USC, Notre Dame should enjoy a plethora of tested cornerbacks in 2023. (Current junior Clarence Lewis is the aforementioned fourth.)

In many respects, this will allow the Irish defense to begin the 2023 season with the same calm it had in 2022, when Hart, Lewis and Bracy provided experienced pass defense.

“You have three older veteran corners that can really play at any moment, which makes you feel good,” head coach Marcus Freeman said in August. “Those three guys can play those two corner spots and I don’t feel there will be a drop off with any of them.”

There are a few key decisions left on Notre Dame’s defense — most notably, defensive end Justin Ademilola and safety Brandon Joseph could return in 2023 — but most of them may come after any Irish bowl game. Hart’s choice was presumably expedited by his apparent exclusion from the bowl game due to this injury.

HART CAREER STATISTICS
2020: 8 games; 3 tackles, 2 passes defended.
2021: 13 games, 10 starts; 42 tackles with four for loss, 9 passes defended and two interceptions.
2022: 11 games, 10 starts; 25 tackles with three for loss, 4 passes defended.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter