Everyone's talking about Manti Te’o, a college football star whose teary story of a cancer-stricken girlfriend was apparently a hoax. Andrew Carter breaks down the twisted saga. Plus, if you're already caught up: three intriguing theories on what went wrong.
In 2012, sports fan were enthralled by the inspirational story of Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame linebacker who, despite grief over the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend within hours of each other in September, managed to lead his team to a successful season and nearly take home the Heisman Trophy.
That was all before a stunning investigation on the website Deadspin broke the news that the girlfriend in question had never actually died. More importantly, she had never lived. She had never existed.
Was it a publicity stunt, a cruel joke, a hoax? And was Te’o the perpetrator or a duped victim? Deadspin’s story has caused a lot of surprise and confusion.
The Daily Beast breaks down who’s who in the shocking tale.
Te’o is the Notre Dame linebacker at the center of it all. One of the most decorated defense players in college football history, Te’o led his team to a national championship, finished second in the Heisman voting, and now he’s a projected first-round NFL pick.
Embarrassingly, in hindsight, the devout Mormon also spent much of the fall telling the inspiring story of a dead girlfriend who did not exist. Despite previously claiming to have met this deceased girlfriend in real life, Te’o now says that his online relationship turned out to be a hoax and that he was the victim. In a statement, Te’o called the affair “painful and humiliating,” adding, “to think that I shared ... my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been.”
Te’o’s beloved grandmother died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72. Soon after her death, Te’o led Notre Dame to an inspiring victory over Michigan State.
Her existence has been confirmed.
Lennay Marie Kekua
Kekua is the 22-year-old Stanford student whom Te’o met after Stanford’s 45–38 victory over Notre Dame in November 2009. According to extensive reports about their courtship, Te’o and Kekua began dating in early 2012. The lovebirds were reportedly active on Twitter (her account was @LoveMSMK), sending each other messages, and Kekua even went to visit Te’o in Hawaii. But the happiness turned to tragedy in April, when Kekua was in a near-fatal car accident. While she was recovering from her extensive injuries, doctors discovered she was also suffering from leukemia. She valiantly fought the illness and even managed to graduate from Stanford, but she passed away on Sept. 11 or 12—within hours of Te’o’s beloved grandmother. After her death, Te’o said that her last words were “I love you” and he called her “the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met.”
She is not real.
But … Kekua has Facebook and Twitter accounts, there are pictures of her on the Internet, and the news outlets that ran stories about her had pictures too. That’s where “Reba” comes in. Reba is the alias that Deadspin used to describe the girl whose photographs appear in all of Kekua’s social-media accounts. Reba says she has never met Te’o, and at first she had no idea how the pictures ended up on Kekua’s accounts. But Reba claims that one photo, which had briefly served as Kekua’s Twitter avatar, had never been put on Facebook or anywhere on the Internet. She had sent it only to Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a friend from high school who had requested she send him a picture in support of a cousin who had been in a severe car accident.
Unlike Reba, Reba’s friend Ronaiah Tuiasosopo does know Manti Te’o. According to the original Deadspin story, he was reportedly an on-field guest during a Nov. 24 Notre Dame–USC game in Los Angeles, and Te’o tweeted that Tuiasosopo should visit him in Hawaii. There were numerous photos of the pair on Tuisasosopo’s Instagram account, which have now been deleted. Tuisasosopo is also reportedly the person who created Lennay Kekua’s Twitter account. The 22-year-old had a real car accident around the same time that Kekua was involved in her fake one. At one point Tuisasosopo was expected to become something of a football star himself, but when he graduated from high school in 2008, he threw himself into his work at the Oasis Christian Church of the Antelope Valley, where his father is a pastor.
Manti's father is the main source who claimed that Te’o and Kekua had met in person. Brian was apparently the one who spread the story of their meeting after the 2009 Stanford game, and he even said that Kekua often went to visit his son in Hawaii. It is not clear if he was lying or if he was a victim of misinformation. Brian never claimed to have met Kekua himself and specifically said she had never met Manti’s parents.
Several national publications from Sports Illustrated to The New York Times were fooled by the hoax, so how did it suddenly unravel so quickly? Sports website Deadspin received an anonymous email on Friday saying that there was something “sketchy” about Kekua that should be looked into. When a quick Google search of the name “Lennay” turned up article after article about Kekua, but nothing until after she died, the website’s staffers began a deeper investigation and found a number of flaws. Among the first red flags: Stanford said she had never attended the school, and Social Security had no record of anyone named Lennay Marie Kekua.
University of Notre Dame
University officials say that Te’o received a mysterious phone call on Dec. 6 from a woman whose voice he recognized as Kekua’s. The woman allegedly informed him that his beloved girlfriend had been a fake. Te’o told school officials about the call on Dec. 26. The university then hired a private investigator, whose findings were shared with the family on Jan. 5. According to a Notre Dame spokesperson, the investigation uncovered “chatter” between the hoax’s perpetrators that showed “the joy they were taking” in fooling Te’o.
But there are some holes in that timeline. Two days after the alleged phone call, Te’o told a reporter, "I worked with Relay for Life stuff. I really got hit with cancer. I don't like cancer at all. I lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer." And when asked about his girlfriend as late as Jan. 3, Te’o did not seek to correct his questioner.
The university supports Te’o’s claim that he was the victim of the hoax and not a perpetrator. "Every single thing about this, until that day in the first week of December, was real to Manti. There was no suspicion it wasn't. No belief it might not be. And so the pain was real. The grief was real. The affection was real. That's the nature of this sad, cruel game,” Notre Dame’s athletic director said.
Well, and then there’s this. Despite all of the evidence, Arizona Cardinals fullback Reagan Mauia disputes Kekua’s lack of existence and even claims to have met her when he was volunteering in American Samoa in June 2011. On Wednesday, he said, “This was before her and Manti. I don’t think Manti was even in the picture, but she and I became good friends. We would talk off and on, just checking-up-on-each-other kind of thing. I am close to her family. When she was going through the loss of her father, I was—I offered a comforting shoulder and just someone to bounce her emotions off.” He claims they were introduced through Tuiasosopo. But NFL quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, a cousin of the aforementioned Tuiasosopo, says that he has never met or even heard of Kekua.