By DAVID VANTRESS and MICHAEL WANBAUGH
THE GOSHEN NEWS
The season of destiny for the Notre Dame football program has gone from South Bend, to South Beach to just plain south.
A bizarre hoax involving All-American linebacker Manti Te’o and his late girlfriend who apparently never existed, is the latest turmoil to befall the Fighting Irish since an embarrassing 42-14 BCS National Championship Game loss to Alabama Jan. 7 in Miami.
A day after that loss Head Coach Brian Kelly interviewed with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, putting his future with Notre Dame in doubt before he announced Saturday he would stay with the Irish.
Just when things seemed to settle down in South Bend, a Deadspin.com report released Wednesday afternoon indicated that Te’o’s well documented relationship with Stanford student Lennay Kekua, was an elaborate hoax and Kekua never even existed.
Notre Dame officials insisted Wednesday evening that Te’o was in fact the victim of the “sad and very cruel deception,” in relation to the alleged death of Kekua in California. Te’o and Notre Dame indicated Kekua had died from leukemia early during the 2012 college football season.
In a statement Wednesday, Te’o said that he did have a long-distance relationship with Kekua, but the two had never met.
“This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online,” Te’o said in the statement. “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.
“To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating. ... In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious.”
Te’o’s relationship with Kekua became one of the storylines of Notre Dame’s special and unlikely 12-0 regular season. Much media attention, both locally and nationally, was focused on the fact that Te’o’s grandmother, Annette Santiago, and Kekua, died the same day, Sept. 11. The media attention focused primarily on how Te’o was responding to the dual losses, both on and off the football field. It was never indicated that the two had never met in person.
That Saturday night, Sept. 15, the Fighting Irish traveled to East Lansing, Mich, to play Michigan State. The Irish defeated the Spartans, 20-3. Te’o had seven solo tackles that night, five assists, a fumble recovery, and two passes broken up.
Television cameras as time ran out focused on an emotional Te’o, who hails from Hawaii, on a knee on the sidelines, being comforted by teammates as the emotion of the past week seemed to be overwhelming him.
The next week against Michigan most of the 80,000 fans at Notre Dame Stadium wore Hawaiian leis to show support for Te’o.
Over the course of the season, Teo’s dual losses became an ever-increasing part of a storyline that vaulted him into consideration for the Heisman Trophy. Te’o ended up finishing second in the Heisman Trophy balloting to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. The Heisman is college football’s premier individual award.
In their investigative report, Deadspin.com reporters Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey assert that there is no Social Security Administration record for the death of Lennay Marie Kekua and that her passing, recounted many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper.
The reporters also outlined that background checks on Lennay Kekua turn up nothing and that the Stanford registrar’s office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. Furthermore, Burke and Dickey report, there is no record of her birth in the news and that outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.
“The photographs identified as Kekua — in online tributes and on TV news reports — are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman who is not named Lennay Kekua,” the report continued. “She is not a Stanford graduate; she has not been in a severe car accident; and she does not have leukemia. And she has never met Manti Te’o.”
Support at ND
The report raised questions as to how much Te’o and his family used the story of Kekua’s story to help advocate his Heisman credibility. Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown and Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick were quick to stand behind Te’o, who is expected to be a first-round NFL draft pick in a couple months.
In a statement Wednesday Brown indicated Te’o and his parents approached Notre Dame coaches about the possible hoax on Dec. 26.
“The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax,” Brown said. “While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.” Swarbrick expanded on the statement during a press conference Wednesday night, calling the situation a “cruel, cruel hoax.” He even had to hesitate to keep from crying while talking about Te’o’s character.
Swarbrick said a private investigative firm was retained by the university to look into the matter. University officials do not plan to make that report public, Swarbrick added.
Swarbrick said Te’o first became suspicious during an ESPN awards show in Orlando, Fla. in early December 2012 when he received a call from what he recognized as Kekua’s phone number, and a voice he associated with Kekua. The contact continued for a time before dissipating, Swarbrick said.
Swarbrick said Te’o talked with his family and consulted with them before notifying university officials.
Most of the Notre Dame football team was not aware of the situation, Swarbrick said. Head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco were the two coaches Te’o approached first, he said.
Swarbrick added that Te’o plans to make his own public statement, possibly as soon as today.