Notre Dame is standing by Manti Te’o, the talented linebacker whose girlfriend’s death was an inspiration straight out of Rockne and Rudy lore.
Ultimately, the story was just too good to be true, as Deadspin’s Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey reported. Someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua “apparently ingratiated herself” with Te’o in what was “exclusively an online relationship,” according to Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, then conspired with others to convince him that she had died of leukemia. It’s something straight out of “Catfish,” an MTV show.
“I want to stress, as someone who has probably been as engaged in this as anyone in the past couple of weeks, that nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te’o one iota,” Swarbrick said in an emotional press conference Wednesday night.
Kekua, according to Te’o, had died on Sept. 12, just hours after his grandmother and that’s where the inspirational tale begins. Notre Dame went out and beat Michigan State two days later and Te’o did not attend the funeral or see Kekua. He had spoken movingly of all-night calls to her hospital room in which the phone was left next to her, but the two had never met. From there, the touching story was reported by SI, ESPN and other outlets, growing into nearly legendary status. Then, the day after Christmas, with Notre Dame preparing to play Alabama in the BCS championship game, the story took another turn.
“On the morning of Dec. 26, very early morning, Manti called his coaches to inform them that while he was in attendance at the ESPN awards show in Orlando, he received a phone call from a number he recognized as having been that he associated with Lennay Kekua,” Swarbrick said. “When he answered it, it was a person whose voice sounded like the same person he had talked to, who told him that she was, in fact, not dead. Manti was very unnerved by that, as you might imagine.”
It’s a baffling, head-spinning story, with an enormous number of questions that remain to be answered. Among other issues, was Te’o — a Heisman Trophy finalist — possibly in on the hoax?
Although Notre Dame believes he was not, a friend of a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo told Deadspin he was “80 percent sure” that Te’o was in on it for the publicity. Burke and Dickey reported that Te’o and Tuiasosopo had been in contact through Twitter. The only photos online that purportedly show Kekua actually are pictures of another woman, according to Deadspin, and she was a classmate of Tiuasosopo.
A number of questions remain, but Te’o issued a statement Wednesday:
“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.”