The Manti Te’o story has been one of the most incredible things to cover this football season. A devout Mormon going to a very Catholic university to awaken the echoes of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, one of the most storied programs in college football, while overcoming unthinkable personal tragedy, losing both his grandmother and girlfriend in the same week. It practically wrote itself…and it did across every sports outlet imaginable. Yesterday, however, the story took an unexpected turn, as Deadspin broke the story about the girlfriend of Te’o, an integral part of his inspirational story, was a complete and utter fabrication.
Lennay Kekua was a 22-year old Stanford student who met Manti Te’o following a Notre Dame game in Palo Alto in 2009. From there, the two formed a friendship that turned into a relationship that they kept going through phone conversations and online interaction. She had been in a car accident before getting diagnosed with leukemia. She overcame the accident and beat the leukemia into remission once before finally succumbing in September.
Or at least that’s what we were told.
There was no Lennay Kekua. There was no physical meeting between her and Te’o, and there was no tragic death that the Notre Dame linebacker had to overcome because there was no Lennay Kekua. The university moved quickly to release a statement and hold a press conference, asserting that Te’o had been taken in by an elaborate online hoax for the enjoyment of its perpetrators. There are still plenty of questions left to be answered in this, but the biggest question is who was the real target of the hoax?
If it was Te’o, as the Heisman Trophy runner-up and his school are saying, then it’s a terribly sad story for the most decorated college football player in history. But it still leaves us with questions. Why all the added details about meeting at the Stanford game or meeting up in Hawaii? What was the point of making us believe there was more to the relationship than online flirting? And why on Earth did he keep pushing the dead girlfriend angle of his story even after he reportedly learned it was all a hoax (at the College Football Awards on December 6)?
It’s possible that Te’o was targeted for an elaborate hoax, and that his rising fame made the perpetrators nervous. Maybe they realized that with that additional attention to Te’o, more attention would get spent on his personal life and his girlfriend who was the love his life, according to Te’o. Added attention meant their joke would be found out, so they pulled the plug and killed off Lennay Kekua before anyone came snooping around.
But then why did Te’o punch up their romance with the added details? Was it to make it a better story, which he could then use to fuel a Heisman campaign? Or was he simply embarrassed about being one of the most popular men in South Bend and having an online girlfriend who he never met?
The other possibility is that Te’o was complicit in the whole thing and actively invented this fake girlfriend, but that opens up an entirely new can of worms. Why invent a person online to get into a relationship with? Why kill that person off? Perhaps Te’o has an insatiable need for attention (for which he should get help) or he has some bigger secret he wanted to hide.
So was Te’o the victim or the perpetrator of this elaborate hoax? Either way, there are too many questions in this situation to tackle and as is so often the case with powerful men and powerful institutions, we’ll likely never get the full story. What we do know is that Manti Te’o, or the pristine caricature of Manti Te’o we’ve built up this season, will never be seen the same again.