Every fan draped in a No. 5 jersey three sizes too big that ever waited for Manti Te’o outside the north gate of Notre Dame Stadium is now waiting for him to set the record straight — if that’s even possible at this point.
Te'o accepted the Sportsmanship Award in early December before claiming a litany of other national honors en route to a runner-up finish in the Heisman Trophy voting
So is every reporter that helped pump his Heisman candidacy full of helium based in part on his relationship with a young woman that, as it turns out, never existed. How Te’o harnessed his unimaginable grief, turned it into fuel for the Fighting Irish and inspired many around the country.
Now he's the butt of jokes.
Countless blinking-neon questions remain after Deadspin.com broke the story Wednesday that Te’o’s supposedly deceased girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, had never died because she never lived. The report implied Te’o might have even been in on the ruse, which seems ridiculous. Then again, everything about this story is ridiculous.
What makes the most sense of all the speculation is that Te’o could have been tricked — “Catfished” as it’s called — into thinking the woman on the other end of the telephone line and the person behind typed online messages was real. It has happened to high-profile people before.
The details of the relationship, as Te'o and his family described it over the past few months, don't jive, however. If the two engaged only in "online and telephonic" communication, as Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick explained at Wednesday's press conference, why did Te'o's father, Brian, tell a local newspaper that Te’o and Kekua had met in Palo Alto, Calif., after a Notre Dame-Stanford game in 2009? Why did he also volunteer that Kekua and his son had spent time together in Hawaii?
Why, when Te’o said he became aware of the scam on Dec. 6, when he received a phone call from Kekua’s number and heard the haunting voice on the other end reveal the truth, was that information not made public? Why, in the month leading up to the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7, did Te’o continue to talk about Kekua, her fight with cancer and her death as a result of the disease if he knew it was all a twisted prank?
Maybe it’s because he was embarrassed by how he had embellished the relationship in the first place. Kekua was initially called Te’o’s “friend” by Notre Dame sports information staff and some of Te’o’s teammates in the days after her alleged passing, which came just hours after Te'o lost his grandmother. She was later billed as Te’o’s girlfriend as more questions were asked. In the weeks that followed her death, Kekua ultimately became “the love of my life,” as Te’o put it.
But the two had never met. And as Swarbrick explained Wednesday after conversations with Te'o, Kekua always had reasons for bailing out on in-person meetings that were scheduled. She had been in a terrible car accident in the months before dying of leukemia, but Te’o never visited her in the hospital. He never went to her funeral.
Perhaps she wasn’t the love of his life after all. Maybe she was just an Internet pal. Maybe he realized he could benefit from adding a few white lies to the tragic story. Maybe by the time the media had run with the piece he felt it was too late to come clean.
What we know for sure is Swarbrick, an intelligent man that previously practiced law, is confident that Te’o was played. It’s hard to imagine Swarbrick would throw his full support behind Te’o if there were reason to believe the star player had participated in the deception in any way whatsoever, even by not revealing in a timely manner that he had been duped or that he had fabricated parts of what he actually believe to be a real bond with Kekua.
So why not get out in front of the story? His embarrassment after explaining on his own terms what happened would have paled in comparison to that which he is experiencing right now. Maybe he hoped it would all go away, that nobody would find out. Maybe winning awards at banquets where video tributes to Te’o and how he overcame personal loss were played — after he learned of the hoax — was more important.
Swarbrick said Te’o was silent for so long because he wanted an opportunity to discuss the revelation with his parents face to face.
“He wanted to talk to his parents, and he wanted to talk to them in person,” he said. “He went home for Christmas break. That's Manti. That's the son he is. He wanted to have that conversation with his parents face to face. He wanted to consult with them, wanted to get their advice, and it was on the basis of that conversation, after having concluded it, that he called us (on Dec. 26).”
However, Te’o was with his folks the night of Dec. 6 when he received the call from Kekua’s number, as he was for the next three days on their awards show tour, according to Brian Te’o in an interview with Blue & Gold Illustrated last month.
So many things just don’t add up, and speculation is rampant.
“In many ways, Manti was the perfect mark because he is a guy who is so willing to believe in others and so ready to help that, as this hoax played out in a way that called upon those tendencies of Manti and roped him more and more into the trap,” Swarbrick said. “He was not a person who would have a second thought about offering his assistance and help in engaging fully.”
It can’t be that simple. If it was, then there still needs to be an explanation as to why Te’o never nipped this thing in the bud. Maybe his hesitation was for legal reasons.
We won’t know for sure until Te’o himself speaks to how honest he was about the nature of what he perceived to be a legitimate relationship, or if what he was really roped in by was fame and national applause. Even then we won’t likely get a satisfactory answer. But until he provides his side of the story, bizarre theories will continue to circulate online — none weirder than what we already know. Anything passes for fact on the Internet; Te’o already knows that.