Manti Te’o: A Linebacker, a Made-Up Girlfriend and a National Hoax
SOUTH BEND, Indiana-
In a little more than three months, Manti Te’o probably will be drafted by an NFL team and sign a multimillion dollar deal.
Before teams sink that much money into players, they have questions.
With the revelation that the football feel-good story of the year centered on the Notre Dame linebacker’s love for a woman who never existed, many people have questions for Te’o — a lot of questions.
And as each question in the saga gets answered — none publicly by Te’o — it seems another one, or two, or three, crop up.
One for instance: Who is now behind the one of the Twitter accounts associated with Lennay Kekua, a woman who apparently never lived, let alone die in September before Te’o, who called her his girlfriend, played one of the biggest games of the young season?
A tweet Thursday purportedly from the fictional girlfriend promised she would have a big announcement that would help sort out details of the story, but the tweet was merely a joke about Te’o.
Two other tweets on the page were retweets from the verified account of Te’o.
“@LennayKay I miss you!” a November 6 tweet from Te’o said.
On September 12, Te’o tweeted “@LennayKay you will always be with me wherever I go!”
It was unclear Thursday whether the person Te’o tweeted to in September used it again after reports broke of a hoax or whether someone created a new account with the same user name.
The airing of the bizarre story began Wednesday, when sports website Deadspin published a piece dismissing as a hoax the existence of Te’o’s girlfriend — the one who he said died around the same time as his grandmother while his team marched toward the BCS National Championship Game.
Then Wednesday, the university held a press conference saying Te’o was the victim of a “elaborate hoax.” And Te’o, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, released a statement saying he was embarrassed that he was the victim of a “sick joke.”
The bizarre developments left many wondering if they, instead of Te’o, were led on.
“Te’o’s story that he is completely innocent in this does not really ring true to us,” Timothy Burke, co-author of the Deadspin article, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday night.
The story of the girlfriend came to light in September as Notre Dame continued its improbable undefeated season and Te’o, a relentless tackler, was beginning to emerge as a front-runner for the prestigous Heisman Trophy.
He led the Fighting Irish, amassing double-digit tackle games and becoming the face of one of the best defenses in the nation.
In September and October, Te’o told interviewers that his girlfriend and grandmother had died within hours of each other. The girlfriend, a 22-year-old Stanford University student, died of leukemia, he said.
The twin losses inspired him to honor them with sterling play on the field, Te’o said. He led his team to a 20-3 routing of Michigan State after he heard the news.
“I miss ’em, but I know that I’ll see them again one day,” he told ESPN.
It was indeed a gripping interest story of determination. And the media ran with it.
No one bothered to seek out Kekua’s family until Deadspin, acting on an anonymous e-mail received last week, started poking around.
“What do you do when you first want to know something? You Google it, right?” Burke said on CNN. “And Google searches for ‘Lennay Kekua’ only showed up articles about her dying, and inspiring Mant’i Teo.
“There’s no evidence of her existing in any way, other than, you know, after she had allegedly died. And we thought that was a little weird.”
Te’o’s grandmother died in September, Deadspin said.
But there was no Social Security Administration record of Kekua’s death. The Birth and Death Registration office in Orange County, California, told CNN it had no record of Kekua nor does the county coroner.
Deadspin called mortuaries and funeral homes in Carson, California, where Kekua was reportedly buried — but came up empty.
The website sought out the person whose picture had been presented as that of Kekua and tracked her down.
She was alive, didn’t have leukemia and had never met Te’o.
“That sort of opened everything up,” Burke said.
The revelation prompted the Notre Dame athletics director to call a news conference Wednesday. There was no way for Te’o to know the relationship was a hoax because it had been conducted strictly online and on the phone, said director Jack Swarbrick.
The pair had set up several meetings, including in Hawaii, where Te’o grew up — but Kekua never showed, Swarbrick said.
The university said it did not know how many people were in on the ruse.
According to Swarbrick, Te’o received a call from a woman claiming to be his girlfriend in December, telling him she was not dead. Those calls continued, but Te’o did not answer, he said.
The Stanford University registrar’s office told CNN that it has never had a student registered in Kekua’s name or using an alternate spelling.
“Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed,” Deadspin contends. “There was no Lennay Kekua.”
Her ‘soulful eyes’
So, how did the two fall in love?
According to the South Bend Tribune in Indiana — the newspaper of Notre Dame’s hometown, the two met — yes, met — after a football game in Palo Alto, California, in 2009.
“Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te’o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes,” the paper gushed. “They could have just as easily brushed past each other and into separate sunsets. Te’o had plenty to preoccupy himself that November weekend in Palo Alto, Calif., back in 2009.”
The article went on to say: “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.”
Te’o’s father, Brian, was quoted in the article: “They started out as just friends. 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.”
Media reports indicate the parents never met Kekua.
The newspaper said Wednesday it based Teo’s story on information from the linebacker, his family members and coaches — and moved the story to its archives.
Te’o tried to clear things up with a statement Wednesday saying he “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,” he said in the statement.
“To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating,” the statement continued. “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.”
Will the real Kekua please stand up?
Late Wednesday, the story took another twist when ESPN found an NFL player who said he knew Kekua. The player, Reagan Mauia, a free agent, told the sports network that he and Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu met her.
“This was before her and Manti,” Mauia told ESPN. “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.”
By Lateef Mungin
CNN’s Steve Almasy, Phil Gast and Amanda Watts contributed to this report.
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