This was one of the most inspirational and heart-warming stories seen in sports in, well, ever! A young man battles the hardship of losing his grandmother and his girlfriend within 24 hours to have one of the best seasons in recorded history. He won seven collegiate awards, finished second in the Heisman Trophy (the annual award given to the best college football player) voting and inspired a nation with his determination in the face of adversity.
There was just one small problem with the story of Manti Te’o; it wasn’t true. The girlfriend he referenced countless times after her passing, both on Twitter and in interviews, never existed.
In order to avoid confusion, I will review events chronologically, however, I must preface this by saying that a lot of the details within the timeline come from the Te’o camp, so keep your salt at the ready.
Manti Te’o is a Hawaiian born linebacker who, following several dominant seasons at high school level, declared for the University of Notre Dame ad enrolled in 2009. Like many Freshman attending University far from home, Te’o became lonely and soon made friends with a woman on Facebook – Lennay Kekua.
Over the next 2 years, Te’o began to assert himself as an influential force on the field, as well as continuing his on/off correspondence with Kekua. The relationship blossoms in the spring of 2012, culminating with Te’o planning to visit Kekua in San Diego; this would be their first face to face interaction. By a stroke of bad luck, which is a far too common trait of this story, Kekua is involved in a car crash days after Te’o suggests a visit, leaving him unable to make the trip.
Two months after her accident, the extremely misfortunate Kekua was diagnosed with Leukemia. Te’o again intended to visit but a pre-arranged family reunion got in the way.
Te’os grandmother passes away on the 11th September, with him finding out the following day. Kekua reaches out to him upon hearing the news, telling Te’o that “she’ll be there for him” but, just two hours later, Te’o receives a call from Kekuas brother telling the player that Lennay Kekua is “gone”.
Just three days later against Michigan state, Te’o records 12 tackles in an emotionally charged performance and provides details of his sorrow to the assembled media in his post-game interview. The story immediately becomes a National headline. A week later, on the day of Kekuas funeral, Te’o gives one of the best individual performances in living memory – his participation in the game with Michigan was down to a promise Te’o had made to Kekua, that he would stay with the team and play the game “if anything happened to her”.
This is where the story twists. Rather dramatically. A brilliant article by Deadspin.com released on the 16th January breaks news that the account of Kekua and her death is a hoax. Kekua was not involved in a car crash, nor was she ever diagnosed with Leukemia and she certainly didn’t lose her life on September 12th, as she did not exist.
The initial reaction of the Press and Social Media at large was outrage: surely Manti Te’o was involved here. He made it up to get Heisman votes. He was thinking about the NFL contract. Te’o and his camp came out refuting those allegations – they claimed that the player had been “catfished”, that he was guilty of naivety and nothing more. Even the University of Notre Dame came out in his defence, posting on their Facebook page that Te’o had zero culpability in the hoax.
The facts, if we can believe them in this case, paint a different picture to the one the Te’o camp wants us to accept. They portray Te’o as this naïve, kind soul, who fell foul of an evil movement to tear Manti down. A naïve, kind soul who has, apparently, never heard of Skype.
Consider some key events around the time of discovery, which paint a slightly different picture:
- Te’o received a tweet on 4th December, advising him that Kekua was a fraud.
- Two days later, he receives a call from Kekua, advising him that she is alive and well.
- He subsequently talks in two interviews about Kekua and her passing, all the while knowing it is a lie.
- He tells friends of the hoax on the 10th December, with advices to his family and coach coming two weeks later. This leads to the press release from Notre Dame.
- He then receives a call from Kekua saying she will reveal all on the 16th January.
The call to Te’o came on the 16th January as expected but the source of the call was anything but. The caller was a California man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo – the same Ronaiah Tuiasosopo that Lennay Kekua had introduced verbally as her cousin some 15 months earlier. According to TMZ.com, Tuiasosopo had developed intense, and ultimately unrealistic, feelings for Manti Te’o. These feelings, combined with similar pranks he had pulled in the past, led to the hoax.
When we compare the life of Tuiasosopo with the fictional like of Kekua, the similarities are striking. Tuaisosopo, thought to be a distant family friend of the Te’os, was in a car crash one month before Kekua was allegedly involved in a similar incident. Tuiasosopos cousin is diagnosed with Leukemia around the same time as Kekua breaks her devastating news to Te’o. It seems as if Tuiasosopo was projecting his life into that of Te’o, via Lennay Kekua.
Manti Te’o has since appeared on U.S. National Television to answer for himself but, as this interview was conducted by Katie Couric, a woman who shares the same PR Man as Te’o (Matthew Hiltzik), we will take that interview with some of our aforementioned salt.
As for Tuaisosopo, it has been announced that he will be conducting a ‘tell-all’ interview with Dr. Phil; the air date of which is yet to be determined.
If we discount the embarrassment to Notre Dame, the Te’o family and the woman whose picture was used as Kekua in this scenario, we are left with the possible financial implications to Te’o himself. Rightly or wrongly, he is going to be stigmatized for this and, as he is due to enter the NFL draft in April, this situation could have a real bearing on who drafts him, when he is drafted and ultimately, how much he gets paid.
Prior to the news of the hoax, his draft stock was on a meteoric rise; as high as 3rd overall in some quarters. Immediately after the news broke, his ranking dropped to 16th overall and, at the time of writing, he is projecting at 21st Overall. If we take the contracts of the 2012 draft as a guide, the difference between 3rd and 21st is $12.2m. M as in million.
At present, it is impossible to know the truth of the matter but I believe it to be somewhere in between “He lied to us all” and “He panicked when he found out”. What’s lost in all of the controversy is that this guy is an outstanding talent who will, undoubtedly, light up the NFL for years to come. Character is a big thing NFL executives look for in players, with honesty and integrity featuring heavily in that conversation. Te’o himself is quoted as saying “I wasn’t as forthcoming about it. But I didn’t lie”.
At least we know that, with statements like that, he always has a future in politics if the football career doesn’t pan out ….