A linebacker, a made-up girlfriend, and a national hoax
SOUTH BEND, IN — 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.
For instance, why did Te’o tell reporters before the Heisman Trophy presentation on December 8 that he “lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer,” when two days earlier the woman he thought was dead called him on his cellphone?
Why did he tell a Sports Illustrated reporter in October that Kekua came to one of his games then issue a statement this week that he never met her?
Who is now behind one of the Twitter accounts associated with Lennay Kekua, a woman who apparently never lived, let alone died, in September before Te’o, who called her his girlfriend, played one of the biggest games of the young season?
The Te’o hoax in 30 posts
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 news 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.
Pete Thamel, the Sports Illustrated writer who published a transcript of his interview with Te’o, said he thinks the star linebacker was duped.
“If he was acting he deserves an Oscar nomination,” Thamel said. “The depth and the detail of this scam is mind-boggling, but I do think Te’o … he caught the wave of this story, maybe exaggerated the depths of their relationship a little. But at the end of the day, we need to hear from Manti Te’o.”
Doubters wonder if Heisman Trophy a factor in hoax
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 prestigious 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 Manti Te’o.
“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.
Timeline: How the story unfolded
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 on December 6, telling him she was not dead. Those calls continued, but Te’o did not answer, he said.
The Heisman Trophy was awarded two days later, and Te’o made comments about losing relatives to cancer before he finished second in the award voting to quarterback Johnny Manziel of Texas A & M.
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.”
Te’o in his own words
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.”
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.
But as Thamel reported Thursday, Te’o said they met through a cousin.
“The only time he didn’t speak with confidence was when I asked how they met,” he wrote. I didn’t press him, as it was clearly something he didn’t want to share. I suspected they may have met online, understood he wouldn’t have wanted that public and moved on.”
Media reports indicate the parents never met Kekua.
Social media jump all over story
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.”
Te’o didn’t meet with the media Thursday as he prepared for an all-star game in Florida.
By Lateef Mungin and Steve Almasy, CNN
CNN’s Phil Gast and Amanda Watts contributed to this report.