Hook, Line, and Sinker — Manti Te’o Reeled into Hoax

It was the best story of the 2012 college football season. It was a story that propelled Manti Te’o into legendary status. It helped make the Notre Dame 2012 football season seem as if it was one of destiny.

It was all a lie.

Manti Te’o’s girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, was nothing more than a “catfish“, and the Deadspin story turned every Notre Dame fan’s world upside-down. Speculation ran rampant across the internet. Was Te’o involved in the hoax? Did Te’o create the hoax himself? Or was Te’o simply a victim?

To answer these questions, let’s take a look at everything that unfolded yesterday.

After the Deadspin story, Notre Dame released the following statement on their Facebook page:

On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te’o and his parents that Manti had been 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 leukemia. The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.

This of course, leads to the obvious question: How in the hell did Notre Dame know about this for so long and let Deadspin beat them to the punch? While it would be rather understandable for Notre Dame to not want this out as a distraction before the BCS title game, it seemed rather odd that everyone would still stay silent after the game and even after Brain Kelly’s flirtation with the NFL.

Shortly after Notre Dame released their statement, Manti Te’o released one of his own to ESPN:

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.

However, this statement conflicted with several parts of the Deadspin report. Most notably, the back-story of the relationship that Manti’s father, Brian Te’o, gave to the South Bend Tribune in October:

It never felt like a chance meeting, although it probably appeared that way from the outside looking in.

Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te’o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes.

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.

She was gifted in music, multi-lingual, had dreams grounded in reality and the talent to catch up to them.

The plan was for Kekua to spend extensive time with the whole Te’o family when upwards of 40 of them came to South Bend in mid-November for ND’s Senior Day date with Wake Forest.

“They started out as just friends,” Brian Te’o said. “Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there. But within the last year, they became a couple.

All of a sudden, we’ve gone from an “online” relationship to a story that has Te’o not just meeting Lennay at the Stanford game, but also spending time with her in Hawaii.

This left Irish fans with two possibilities. Either Brian Te’o helping build this lie, or he was simply trying to give his son a better story than “they met online” perhaps either out of personal embarrassment or protection of his son’s personal life. Either way, all Irish fans were left with were questions.

Enter Jack Swarbrick and his press conference (full transcript).

Swarbrick came out firing, placing his full confidence in Manti Te’o and his version of the events. He confirmed that Deadspin was correct in calling the whole relationship a hoax; however, Te’o was the victim and “nothing about what [he had] learned has shaken [his] faith in Manti Te’o one iota.”

Swarbrick went on to detail that Manti reported the following:

On the morning of December 26th, 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. When he answered it, it was a person whose voice sounded like the same voice he had talked to, who told him that she was, in fact, not dead.

Manti was very unnerved by that, as you might imagine. I will let him again talk about that and his reaction to it. But he maintained that secret vis a vis the members of the football family until he called the coaches on the morning of the 26th. They promptly reached out to me to inform me of this shocking piece of news, and I arranged to meet Manti upon his return to campus and did so on the afternoon of the 27th.

Later on in the press conference, Swarbrick explained that there was a twenty day gap (as the award show was on the 6th) in getting an initial because Manti first wanted to meet with his family before he did anything else. Swarbrick also stated that the public silence from Notre Dame was due to the fact that they felt that “this is Manti’s story to tell and we believe he should have the right to tell it.”

On top of that, Notre Dame didn’t even receive the report from investigators until January 4th. The next day, Swarbrick met with the Te’o family to discuss it. The result:

We left that meeting with an understanding that they would think about what they had heard, engaged Manti’s future representation, which would be determined later in the week, in consultation as to how to best respond, and keep the university fully informed of their intentions and work in concert with us when they were ready to communicate the story.

It was my understanding…is my understanding that they were on a timetable to release the story themselves next week when today’s story broke.

Of course, now that timetable has now gone to hell. Swarbrick believed that Manti might speak sometime today on this issue, but he couldn’t confirm it.

Even though Notre Dame clearly placed all their support behind Te’o, many burning questions were left unanswered. Sticking to the stance of letting Manti tell the story, Swarbrick differed questions about Brian Te’o’s back-story for Lennay as well as what exactly was uncovered in the investigative report. Swarbrick even went as far as to confirm that there were no plans to release it, which certainly didn’t ease my fears at all and I’m sure many Irish fans were right there with me. Even crazier, Swarbrick confirmed that the person calling as “Lennay” that December night wanted to keep the hoax going, explain away “her” death, and continue the relationship.

Later in the night, it was one strange story after another.

A report surfaced that an unnamed player wasn’t exactly too surprised that Lennay turned out to be non-existant. While the report seemed rather keen on getting a money quote about Te’o lying, the player went on to say that he felt that Te’o simply tried to keep up with the media storm around him. He went on to say while players were suspicious, no one ever confronted Te’o about it.

Then a report from Collegespun detailed how a website, Playerwives.com, were contacted by Lennay’s “sister” and requested that a piece about Lennay be taken down. The date of this request: December 6th, the same date Manti received his phone call from Lennay at the ESPN awards show.

The Big Lead also ran a piece wondering how Te’o now dead girlfriend was writing letters from the grave. The claim was that Te’o stated in an interview that he read a letter from Lennay before the Stanford game. However, a SI interview published in the fall clearly stated that these letters were written in advance and were read to Te’o by Lennay’s “siblings”.

There was also a report that Lennay’s twitter account magically sprung back to life; however, SBN proved it was fake.

One of our readers stated on Twitter that the rabbit hole went even deeper. He claimed that he took a photo with Lennay’s “family” outside the Coliseum before the USC game. [Editorial note: I requested this photo; however, the request was declined due to not knowing the ages nor identities of the parties in the photo.]

If that all wasn’t strange enough, an Arizona Cardinal claimed he actually met Lennay:

Reagan Mauia, an Arizona Cardinals fullback, said he believes Kekua existed because he met her in person when he and other Polynesian teammates and Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu went to do charity work in American Samoa in June 2011.

“This was before her and Manti,” Mauia said Wednesday evening. “I don’t think Manti was even in the picture, but she and I became good friends. We would talk off and on, just checking up on each other kind of thing. I am close to her family. When she was going through the loss of her father, I was — I offered a comforting shoulder and just someone to bounce her emotions off. That was just from meeting her in Samoa.”

Mauia said Tuiasosopo — whom Mauia believes is Kekua’s cousin — introduced the two. After the initial meeting, Mauia said he met her at an “after-party” for all of the athletes involved in the camp.

“She was tall,” he said. “Volleyball-type of physique. She was athletic, tall, beautiful. Long hair. Polynesian. She looked like a model … ”

He said it is his understanding that Kekua’s mother is operating her Twitter account. He said he’d never met her mother. When told by a reporter that she apparently might not have existed, Mauia said: “No, she is real.”

With all of this uncertainty floating about, the Twitter floodgates opened and the story started to become a bit clearer.

First, a former Stanford football player came to Manti’s defense:

Justin Megahan then blew the whole thing wide open, sending me on a Twitter hunt late into the night:

With the genie out of the bottle, Twitter exploded. Soon more tweets were flying into my timeline about the hoax. The tweets below seem to back up not just Manti’s story of being victimized, but also Swarbrick’s account of the private investigation uncovering discussions about it from people online:

One of the players in this, “jay.R”, gave even more detail on his knowledge of the hoax:

And then I saw this:

A Google search does reveal that there is in fact a Lennay Kekua profile from MySpace. While the account is protected, Google still shows comments from the account from 4-5 years ago which matches up with the timeline of when “jay.R” found out about Ronaiah’s alter ego.

So with all of the above, where does that leave us?

Personally, I don’t see how Manti Te’o doesn’t come off as the victim in this whole situation. Despite that though, there are still some blanks that need to be filled in. Brian Te’o’s false comments about Lennay to the South Bend Tribune must be addressed. Manti would also do himself a big favor by detailing how he met “Lennay” as well.

While I’m disappointed that Notre Dame and/or Manti couldn’t get out in front of this story first, what’s done is done. Now is the time to be as open as possible and hold nothing back.

As Swarbrick said though, this will be Manti’s story to tell, and we should let him tell it. At the very least, the Notre Dame family owes him that before any final judgments are made.

UPDATE (1/17 12:53 PM ET): TMZ has now broken a story, complete with photographic evidence of Ronaiah and other people claiming to be Lennay’s family. Further Update (2:23 PM ET): TMZ has allowed HLS to publish said photos. Credit for both images below via TMZ.com: [Update 1/23: TMZ only allowed HLS to have the photos up for a week, therefore, they have been removed.]

UPDATE (1/17 1:11 PM ET): Pat Forde now has a clearer explanation as to why ND sat on the story. Sources confirmed that a decision was made to let Te’o break the story; however, for whatever reason they passed, allowing Deadspin to beat them to the punch.

UPDATE (1/17 2:37 PM ET): TMZ has released another story. Remember that family with a young child stricken with cancer that Te’o famously reached out to? They talked with TMZ and backed Te’o.

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  • Jack

    Manti Te’o to me was someone that I believed epitomized doing things the right way. I looked up to him as someone that I aspired to be, not as a football player, but as a man. I hope that he was just caught up in an elaborate scam and that he had nothing to do with this. After reading the dead spin article and now this article I don’t know what to believe. I want to put my faith in Manti but it is hard for me to do so until I hear him speak. I think one thing is clear though, and I hate to bring it up amidst all of this, to me, this is the reason why Manti Te’o didn’t show up in the BCS National Championship

  • Colleen

    Like it was for many other ND fans, a trip to the BCS national championship game was a strain on our finances. I was on the fence about going–would I regret spending that much money if ND lost? My husband convinced me that we should go because regardless of the game’s outcome, this team–especially this group of seniors, and especially Manti–were players that I loved and respected, more than any other players since I’ve followed Notre Dame football. I wanted to be at Manti’s last game in blue and gold.

    Regardless of the truth behind this story, that all feels tainted now.

    • NDtex

      That’s what makes this all so sickening. Pretty much every ND fan became unbelievably emotionally invested in this time like never before.

      Like I said in the lede, it made the team look like a team of destiny. In the end, it was a metaphor for the entire season.

  • Mike T

    Good digging, Tex. There’s definitely a lot more to this bizarre story that obviously goes back several years. I implore people to wait this out before passing judgements based largely on “reports” from social media.

    Lastly, let’s keep in mind that Te’o did nothing legally wrong. Furthermore, his – and the team’s – play on the field & their education & development as good humans is really all we should be concerned about.

    THAT’s the Notre Dame way.

    • Jack

      agreed good detective work Tex Holmes would be proud of you

  • Brandon

    great story. after seeing this, and the tweets, i am more inclined to believe that Te’o is a victim. Great work putting all this together and doing some investigating.

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