Te'o says he was duped in love story
BY STACY ST. CLAIR & BRIAN HAMILTON Chicago Tribune
Thursday, January 17, 2013
1/17/13 at 6:54 AM
Facing a media throng just days before competing for a national championship, Notre Dame's star linebacker Manti Te'o fielded a question about the death of his girlfriend and his ability to rise above the tragedy.
It was a benign question, one he had heard dozens of times before as Lennay Kekua's passing had been woven so tightly into the narrative of his triumphant senior year. And he answered it as he always had.
But at that time Te'o - and university officials - knew there was far more to the story than platitudes about football and family.
A week earlier, on Dec. 26, the Heisman runner-up told Notre Dame officials that his girlfriend did not exist and that he was a victim of an elaborate Internet hoax, the school said Wednesday.
"In many ways, Manti was the perfect mark, because he is a guy who is so willing to believe in others and so ready to help," Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said.
Swarbrick outlined a bizarre story in which Te'o learned his girlfriend never existed more than three months after her supposed death. The player received a phone call Dec. 6, while at an awards show, from what he believed was Kekua's old cell phone number. A voice he recognized as Kekua's told him that she wasn't dead.
"Every single thing about this, until that day in the first week of December, was real to Manti," Swarbrick said.
Swarbrick likened the hoax to the movie "Catfish," in which a person creates a fake persona with someone else's picture and then dupes another person into a romantic relationship.
Kekua's purported passing came within 48 hours of the real death of Te'o's grandmother, Annette Santiago. That double-loss vaulted Te'o onto the cover of Sports Illustrated and, along with Notre Dame's eventual undefeated regular season, into the Heisman Trophy mix. Te'o finished second in that voting to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, tying for the best finish ever by a pure defender.
The scam does more than just shatter a college football fairytale. It also leaves a black mark on sports journalism, as many news outlets ran stories about Kekua's passing without verifying her death. There was no published obituary for Kekua and no California driver's license issued to anyone with that name. The Social Security Administration database had no record of anyone with the surname Kekua dying in 2012.
Yet respected national publications such as Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times all ran stories about Te'o's heartbreak.
An Academic All-American with a 3.3 grade point average, Te'o released a statement Wednesday insisting that he had been duped into having a long-term, "emotional relationship" with an Internet impostor. Describing the situation as "painful and humiliating," Te'o said he believed he maintained an authentic relationship with Kekua over the phone and via the Internet.
Notre Dame hired a private investigator, who produced a final report on Jan. 4, and the university shared the findings with the Te'o family on Jan. 5 during the run-up to the BCS championship game vs. Alabama. Swarbrick said he believed the Te'o's were poised to release the story next week before the sports website Deadspin broke it.
The Deadspin story, however, is raising questions about Te'o's involvement in the ruse. The site says that Kekua's purported Twitter account was created by a California man with ties to the linebacker and his family. An unnamed source suggested the death was a publicity stunt hatched by Te'o and his West Coast counterpart.
Notre Dame acknowledged Wednesday that it did not encourage the player to set the record straight before the title game. Instead, officials sat silent while reporters blindly prepared stories about Kekua's fake death, fake leukemia and fake Stanford degree.