The linebacker and the dead girl who never was

Fri, Jan 18, 2013, 00:00

AMERICAN FOOTBALL:Manti Te’o, Notre Dame’s star linebacker, was one of the feel-good stories of the 2012 college football season, excelling on the field despite the deaths of his grandmother and his girlfriend, he said, within hours of each other.

On Wednesday, that story fell apart when the website Deadspin published an article saying Te’o’s girlfriend never existed.

Notre Dame said in a statement Te’o was the victim of “what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukaemia.”

Te’o released his own statement, saying he was the target “of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies,” calling the situation “painful and humiliating”.

At a news conference on Wednesday night, Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame’s athletic director, said Te’o received a phone call in early December from a number that he thought to be Kekua’s. The voice on the phone was one he had believed to be hers, Swarbrick said, and the person was telling Te’o she was not dead.

Te’o and his family told the university about the situation on December 26th, Swarbrick said, at which point Notre Dame asked an independent investigative company to look into the matter.

Much remains unclear about whether Te’o was duped or if he somehow perpetrated the fictitious story of having a girlfriend who died during the season.

Onslaught

It is clear, however, both Te’o and the university were well aware of the situation during the onslaught of news media coverage during the lead-up to the Bowl Championship Series title game on January 7th. Neither corrected the record until the Deadspin article was published on Wednesday.

Swarbrick said it was his understanding that, until the Deadspin article was published, Te’o and his family planned to make a public statement next week.

Te’o was Notre Dame’s standout player, finishing second in the Heisman Trophy balloting and leading the Irish to an unexpected berth in the national title game.

On January 3rd, four days before the BCS game, Te’o was asked directly about how the commotion and excitement of the football season helped him cope with the deaths of his girlfriend and grandmother.

“I think whenever you’re in football, it takes your mind off a lot of things,” he said, not directly mentioning the girlfriend.

Swarbrick said there was no attempt to conceal the story.

“This story was coming out,” he said. “There was too much online chatter about it.”

Swarbrick said the university investigation found the motive for creating a fake persona to trick Te’o had simply been the sport of it. He said the perpetrators’ hoax played out much like the 2010 film Catfish, in which a woman built a fake online persona in an attempt to create a relationship.

He said Te’o was targeted for the ruse because of his trusting nature.

“Nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te’o one iota,” he said.

Relationship

Te’o, in his statement, said that over an extended period of time he had developed an emotional relationship with a woman he met online. He did not say whether they had met in person, but he did say they had maintained a relationship online – and on the phone, “and I grew to care deeply about her”.

He said he hoped “people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been.”

Swarbrick said Te’o told him he had never met Kekua in person.

Over the past few months, news outlets across the country, including the New York Times, have noted the death of Te’o’s girlfriend and grandmother during the season.

In October, a month after Kekua was said to have died, an article in the South Bend Tribune described the initial meeting between her and Te’o in California in 2009, without attributing the details.

“Lennay Kekua was a Stanford student and Cardinal football fan when the two exchanged glances, handshakes and phone numbers that fateful weekend three seasons ago,” the story said.

Te’o’s father, Brian, was quoted in the article saying that, every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, when his son happened to be home, “so he would meet with her there”.

He said they started as friends but had become a couple within the past year.

“And we came to the realisation that she could be our daughter-in-law,” Brian Te’o was quoted as saying. “Sadly, it won’t happen now.”

It was around the time the two supposedly became a couple that Kekua was injured in a serious car crash. And during the long recovery, it was discovered she had leukaemia, which killed her, the article said.

A Sports Illustrated article in October told more of the story, reporting that in the months leading up to her death, Te’o “developed a nightly ritual in which he would go to sleep while on the phone”.

“When he woke up in the morning, his phone would show an eight-hour call, and he would hear Lennay breathing on the other end of the line. Her relatives told him that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice,” the article said.

New York Times

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