From the outset of the “Manti Te’o Girlfriend Hoax” first reported by Deadspin.com on Jan. 16 — but seemingly months ago — people generally fell into three camps.
Manti Te'o (left) and fellow Hawaii native Robby Toma basked in their glory on Senior Day. Four years earlier, Te'o saw maybe the worst Senior Day at Notre Dame.
One group was going to believe Te’o was complicit in the hoax no matter what the evidence. A second was going to believe, no matter what, that he was a victim whose naiveté and unsophistication in the ways of the world became exposed. Finally, the third group wanted to hear directly from Te’o to tell his side of the story, fill in some missing information and make a judgment from there.
After watching the interview with Katie Couric that was televised Thursday, it merely revealed to me that Te’o — with apologies to Dennis Green — "was who I thought he was": a well-intentioned, good-hearted individual whose combination of faith, charity and youth made him just innocent and gullible enough to fall prey to the Catfish scam that was perpetrated.
Think about how faith has guided Te’o from the moment he surprisingly announced his decision to sign with Notre Dame on Feb. 4, 2009.
• He acknowledged he was all but destined for USC, the top college program from 2002-08 with an 82-9 record, two national titles, a long history with Polynesian culture in its football program and an embarrassment of NFL riches, including linebackers Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews and Rey Maualuga all getting drafted within the first 38 picks a couple of months later.
Yet after intensely praying on the decision the eve of Signing Day, Te’o’s Mormon faith provided a sign that Notre Dame is where he needs to be.
What could possibly prompt such a decision? He’s not Catholic and the Hawaiian native took his official visit to the school on a miserable, bone-chilling day during which the reeling Irish program — 3-9 a year earlier — lost to a 2-8 Syracuse team whose lame duck head coach was just fired. The team was booed on Senior Day. A week later at USC, Notre Dame couldn’t even generate a first down until the last play of the third quarter while getting crushed 38-3, and the head coach, Charlie Weis, appeared destined to be fired sooner or later.
Is that a leap of faith, or what? Some maybe even described it as flat-out stupid.
• After his freshman year at Notre Dame, another disappointing 6-6 season after which Weis was axed, Te’o was due for the customary two-year Mormon Mission that many of his faith engage in after their 19th birthday.
Although Te’o had eliminated any school during recruiting that would not comply with allowing him to put football on hold, he decided his “Mission” needed to be at Notre Dame, and beyond football. Once again, he went against the grain.
“He told us, ‘It’s not what you think, dad. It’s not because I want to play football,’ ” said his father, Brian. “It’s because I’ve met so many people up there that I’ve been able to become friends with, and I can see how much impact I can have on them. I can’t see myself leaving now right in the middle of it.”
• Finally, after his junior season, a second straight disappointing 8-5 finish, Te’o was projected in many circles to be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft. Now was the time to bolt. He had ostensibly been miffed that second-year head coach Brian Kelly had made a mid-season comment about how “my guys,” meaning his recruits, had a different and better understanding of what it takes to thrive, and the time was ripe to take the money and run.
Yet on Dec. 9, 2011 at the Notre Dame Football Awards Show, Te’o was overcome with emotion watching a video of parents being interviewed about their graduating seniors.
“It struck me,” he told the school’s website the next day. “… No amount of money could bring that joy and pride to my life and to my family, and that’s something that I couldn’t give up, those memories I could make.”
He was grilled by his father about how he might have to potentially reconcile the fact that he walked away from millions of dollars, might suffer a devastating injury as a senior and greet mom and dad on crutches come Senior Day 2012.
“I could live with that,” Te’o replied in another act of faith.
His life was predicated on faith, family — which included his school and teammates — and football, with the latter definitely third. In each endeavor, it was about maintaining honor and devotion.
Likewise with Lennay Kekua, he took his typical leap of faith even though he never directly met her and there were some red flags. He wouldn’t be the first 20-something male (and much older too, we may add) to become enmeshed by the intoxicating lure of a unique, mystery woman, and he won’t be the last.
She was Polynesian, she loved her faith, she supposedly was gorgeous, and she provided peace and comfort to him because “she knew my standards and culture.”
It’s understandable why someone would assume and even resent that Te’o used the mythical death of Kekua, the same day as his grandmother’s on Sept. 12, to generate sympathy and good will across the country. However, he was adamant that the pain he felt at the time was real — “that’s something I can’t fake” — and he saw it more as a platform to demonstrate how the human spirit can overcome whatever pain invades one’s life.
“The only think I basked in is I had an impact on people,” Te’o told Couric. “In times of hardship … he held strong to his faith, his family.”
His greatest regret, he said, was lying to his father about the relationship. Interestingly, he freely used the word “lie” when it came to his family, but was not as harsh with himself about how he told the story to the public. He has used the word “tailored” or “I wasn’t as forthcoming” when sharing his stories about Kekua with the media.
That’s where Te’o fell into Sir Walter Scott’s proverbial “tangled web we weave” that eventually became too hard to escape. Did the story become overdramatized and embellished, especially given what we know now? Yes. Consequently, Te’o admitted the he became scared and confused once he realized on Dec. 6 that Kekua was a mythical figure.
No matter what, people will continue to believe what they want to believe on this matter. Te’o will remain to probably most the embodiment of what every parent would want in a son, will remain a fraud or farce to others, and a good punch line and fodder for jokes to still others.
Years and decades from now, “where have you gone” or “catching up with Manti Te’o” human interest stories will likely reveal a pillar of the community with his noble charities, a life-long friend to all whose lives he touched or still is touching, and a loving family man who will remain someone to emulate in an imperfect world. He will be who we thought he would be.
He will likely move on with his life just fine. It’s time for us to do likewise.