Notre Dame AD says Te’o got call from ‘dead girlfriend’ last month
BY MARK LAZERUS firstname.lastname@example.org January 16, 2013 8:40PM
FILE - In this Nov. 17, 2012, file photo, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o walks off the field following an NCAA college football game against Wake Forest in South Bend, Ind. A story that Te'o's girlfriend had died of leukemia _ a loss he said inspired him to help lead the Irish to the BCS championship game _ was dismissed by the university Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, as a hoax perpetrated against the linebacker. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)
Do you believe Manti Te'o was in on this hoax?
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Updated: February 19, 2013 2:25PM
In the midst of all the praise, the tributes and the accolades being showered on Manti Te’o during awards week last month — so much of it revolving around the inspirational strength and courage he showed in the face of the death of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, of leukemia earlier in the season — the Notre Dame linebacker’s phone rang.
It was Lennay’s number. It was Lennay’s voice.
“[She] told him that she was not, in fact, dead,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “Manti was very unnerved by that, as you might imagine.”
Turns out, Lennay Kekua never existed.
An evening quite unlike any other began Wednesday with a staggering report on Deadspin delving deep into the hoax that was Lennay Kekua, and ended with Swarbrick referencing the MTV show “Catfish,” which exposes fraudulent online relationships like the one Te’o said he discovered he was in last month.
“To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating,” Te’o said in a release.
Swarbrick insisted that “Manti was the victim here.” The Deadspin story never outright accused Te’o of being in on the hoax, but cited a source that said he was “80 percent sure that Te’o was ‘in on it,’ and that [he and a family friend] perpetrated Lennay Kekua’s death with publicity in mind.”
The lengthy story is a fascinating-yet-convoluted tale of falsified Twitter accounts, deleted tweets, misappropriated profile pictures, made-up people and mythmaking. It refutes nearly every detail of the story so many college football fans know by now. The meet-cute in Stanford in 2009? Never happened. The trips to Hawaii? Lennay never showed up. In fact, Swarbrick said, the two had never met, their entire relationship taking place online and over the phone.
The bombshell turns much of the narrative of Notre Dame’s memorable 2012 season and the story that made Te’o a household name into a bizarre fiction. Word of Kekua’s death — mere hours after Te’o’s grandmother had died — surfaced in the week leading up to the Michigan State game on Sept. 15. Te’o finished the game with 12 tackles and a recovered fumble. The next week, he had two interceptions against Michigan. The legend grew.
Notre Dame hired a private firm to investigate after Te’o shared the details on Dec. 26. Swarbrick said the report came out Jan. 4, he shared it with Te’o’s parents in South Florida on Jan. 5, and the family had planned to release the story next week. He said there was no evidence of criminal conduct or NCAA violations.
Swarbrick called Te’o “the perfect mark” for such a scam, because of his trusting nature and eagerness to help others. He said the victims of “catfishing” get lured in by tales of personal hardships — in Kekua’s case, a car accident, a leukemia diagnosis, her failing health, then her death. He said Te’o would tell his side of the story soon.
“The pain was real, the grief was real, the affection was real, and that’s the nature of this cruel, sad game,” Swarbrick said. “The thing I am most sad about is, that the single-most trusting human being I’ve ever met will never be able to trust in the same way again. That’s an incredible tragedy.”