From the outside looking in, Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, was a night of celebration for Manti Te’o. Notre Dame’s All-American linebacker was in Orlando to accept a trio of national awards for his play on the football field when, according to athletic director Jack Swarbrick, he received a phone call from what he thought was his dead girlfriend.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick addressed the Manti Te'o hoax Wednesday night at the Guglielmino Complex.
The voice on the other end of the phone was one that Te’o recognized as Lennay Kekua’s, the supposed Stanford graduate who died of leukemia three months earlier and inspired a slew of media coverage that vaulted Te’o into the national spotlight. The voice told him Kekua wasn’t dead. Swarbrick said it quickly became apparent that the linebacker was the subject of a “very elaborate, very sophisticated hoax.”
Many of the intricate details of this farce were laid out in a report from Deadspin.com Wednesday afternoon. The report outlined connections between Te’o and the alleged perpetrators and painted a picture that suggested he might have been involved in deceiving all those who trumpeted his triumph-over-tragedy story during Notre Dame’s run to the BCS National Championship game.
Swarbrick said Wednesday night that up until Te’o received that phone call in Orlando he fully believed that Lennay Kekua was a real person. He met her online, although the exact timing wasn’t clear, and eventually had regular lengthy phone conversations with her as she claimed to move toward her death. Contrary to previously published stories about the fictional Kekua, Swarbrick said they never met in person. He threw his full support behind Te’o’s story.
“I want to stress, as someone who has probably been as engaged in this as anyone in the past couple of weeks, that nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te'o one iota,” he said.
Te’o first told head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco that Kekua did not exist early on the morning of Dec. 26, one day before returning to campus from a trip to his home in Laie, Hawai`i. Swarbrick said he waited nearly three weeks to share anything because he wanted to talk to his parents face to face before alerting the school. When he returned to campus, Te’o explained the details of his relationship with Kekua to Swarbrick. The university decided to employ a independent investigative firm to try to learn more about the hoax.
The firm provided Notre Dame with a final report of their findings on Jan. 4 while the team was in south Florida preparing for the national championship game. Part of what they found was “online chatter” among the alleged perpetrators that suggested Kekua was a complex prank in the same vein as a 2010 documentary “Catfish” and a popular MTV show by the same name.
“All that comes through it is a sort of casual cruelty,” Swarbrick said. “They're enjoying the joke.”
Swarbrick rolled through a series of possible motives — creating NCAA violations, affecting the outcome of football games or extorting the presumed soon-to-be millionaire — but said the firm could find nothing solid other than the “sport” of pulling off a farce that enjoyed a long run in the national spotlight.
He said part of the reason the school did not come forward sooner with information about the ordeal was they, the university and the investigative firm, needed time to sort through possible motives and to fully understand all the details of the deception.
There are still details left unanswered. There’s the Oct. 12 South Bend Tribune story in which someone in the Te’o family told a reporter that Te’o and Kekua met in person after a Notre Dame-Stanford football game in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2009. Te’o’s father, Brian, also told reporters that Kekua met with Te’o in Hawai`i when he was home during a break from school and football. Swarbrick said the couple arranged face-to-face meetings several times, but Kekua never showed.
There are other questions about the time it took Te’o and the university to come forward and address the situation. The Deadspin report dredged up interactions between Te’o and the man they believe to be the orchestrator of Kekua’s persona on social media. He was, according to the story, a family friend. Swarbrick said those were questions that he wanted to give Te’o the opportunity to address himself.
“At the end of the day this is Manti’s story to tell. We believe it’s his right to tell it, which he is going to do,” he said.
Swarbrick did not know when Te’o would come forward to reveal his side of the story. His future meetings with media will be handled by CAA, the agency that will represent him during his professional career. Swarbrick did say he thought Te’o would speak Thursday at some time. He said the Te’o family previously planned to reveal the hoax next week before news broke Wednesday afternoon.