Manti Te'o is the Notre Dame linebacker whose season was so good that he almost won the Heisman Trophy. Manti Te'o was the biggest star on the Fighting Irish in their return to title contention. Manti Te'o was the face of the storied team's return to the national spotlight, thanks in part to the heartbreaking story of his grandmother and girlfriend dying at the beginning of the season.
Thing is, it looks like Manti Te'o never had a girlfriend — or at least not a girlfriend who died of leukemia and inspired the Fighting Irish. In a lengthy new exposé, Deadspin's Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey report that the saga of Lennay Kekua, Te'o's alleged girlfriend, was dreamt up as a kind of Catfish-like hoax perpetrated one of his friends, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. It's unclear if Te'o was involved in the ruse, though most involved tell Deadspin that he was. One of the stangest details might be that Te'o wasn't Kekua's first "boyfriend":
We spoke with friends and relatives of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo who asserted that Ronaiah was the man behind Lennay. He created Lennay in 2008, one source said, and Te'o wasn't the first person to have an online "relationship" with her. One mark—who had been "introduced" to Lennay by Tuiasosopo—lasted about a month before family members grew suspicious that Lennay could never be found on the telephone, and that wherever one expected Lennay to be, Ronaiah was there instead. Two sources discounted Ronaiah's stunt as a prank that only metastasized because of Te'o's rise to national celebrity this past season.
Catfish was a 2010 movie about two brothers who developed a relationship with a girl and her family on Facebook, when (spoiler alert) one bored housewife was actually responsible for maintaining the different identities.
(Update, 9:45 p.m.: Was Manti Te'o the Victim or the Mastermind of His Dead Girlfriend Hoax?)
According to the popular media narrative, Te'o and Kekua met in 2009 at Stanford and dated until her alleged death in September 2012. The story went that Kekua was allegedly in a vicious car accident about eight months before she allegedly died, that Kekua was allegedly diagnosed with leukemia in June 2012, before allegedly dying from complications three months later.
Deadspin now claims that Tuiasosopo created Twitter accounts for Kekua and used pictures from an unidentified girl's Facebook account to create a digital trail. Te'o told stories about his girlfriend to the media pretty often, including Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel, who immortalized Kekua in an early-season profile of Notre Dame's surprise success, attributed it in part to Te'o's inspired and emotional play on the field.
If you want to know just how much Kekua became central to Te'o's popular narrative throughout his near Heisman Trophy-winning season and into Notre Dame's march to the national title game, this is The New York Times assessing Te'o's draft stock after the season ended:
After a season in which he dealt with the deaths of his girlfriend and his grandmother and put together enough memorable plays to finish as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, Te’o left the college stage on the wrong end of Notre Dame’s embarrassing rout in the B.C.S. championship game.
Kekua was central to Te'o's national identity. Now, it appears, she was a fake.
So far, pretty much everyone is stunned:
WHOA. I am no longer the most famous Mormon to invent an always-suspiciously-absent "girlfriend" in college. deadsp.in/fZ5POJa— Ken Jennings (@KenJennings) January 16, 2013
Wow, Manti Te'o really upstaged Jodie Foster with his 'I'm single' announcement.— Scott Bolohan (@scottbolohan) January 16, 2013
If this Manti Te'o story doesn't break Twitter, then Twitter can't be broken. Here we go.— Gregg Doyel (@GreggDoyelCBS) January 16, 2013
It's unclear why Tuiasosopo, and potentially Te'o, created this hoax and allowed it to go on for so long. Some suspect it was to help with Te'o's Heisman campaign. While we wait for things to get sorted out, read all of Burke and Dickey's story here.
Update 5:22 p.m.: Notre Dame released a statement alleging Te'o was the victim "of what appears to be a hoax," and that Notre Dame coaches and officials were informed about the story on December 26. The whole statement reads:
On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te’o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia. The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. 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.
Update 6:23 p.m.: Te'o released a lengthy statement to ESPN claiming he met Kekua online, which doesn't mesh with the original narrative written in the South Bend Tribune, who reported in a profile on Te'o the two met in person for the first time after a football game. (Presumably Te'o was the one who told them they locked eyes after the football game.) Te'o's complete statement:
"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. 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. "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. "I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them 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. "In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was. "Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I'm looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft."