One part of me can easily give Manti Te’o the benefit of doubt. He has earned that right as the consummate student-athlete and face of the Notre Dame program that resulted in a stunning 12-0 regular season renaissance in 2012, with his leadership playing a vital role.
Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick (right) said "nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te'o one iota."
The benefit of doubt we are referring to is Wednesday afternoon’s surreal news that Lennay Kekua, the supposed deceased girlfriend of linebacker Te'o, never actually existed, other than as a pseudo on-line and telephone line attraction in which Te’o apparently fell for hook, line and sinker — or “Catfished” in the social media vernacular. It was widely reported on Sept. 12 that Kekua had passed away from leukemia the same day as Te’o’s grandmother. On Dec. 26, the consensus All-America linebacker informed head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco he had been duped regarding Kekua.
Another part of me tells me there are too many missing pieces to this story. Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick, originally an attorney, gave a powerful defense of Te’o in a Wednesday night press conference, stating, “The thing I am most sad about (long pause as Swarbrick tried to collect himself emotionally) is the single most trusting human being I’ve ever met will never be able to trust in the same way.”
I can buy his defense because of the personality Te’o (who graduated from Notre Dame in December and is reportedly training in Florida for the spring NFL Draft) has cultivated and lived by to become one of the most celebrated players in the program’s history. I can even see him as the Dave Stoller character in the 1979 coming-of-age movie “Breaking Away”, which won Best Original Screenplay that year from the Academy Awards.
Stoller is a naïve 19-year-old who has trained to become a world-class cyclist and prides himself on living by a code of honor. When he meets his idols, the Italian racing team, he is crestfallen when during a race they jam a tire pump in Stoller’s wheel, causing him to crash when it appeared he was besting them. His father, who runs his used car business sometimes unethically, is stunned to see his normally happy-go-lucky son suddenly so crushed when he returns home.
“Everybody cheats,” said Dave somberly, baring his soul to his father. “I just didn’t know.”
“Well, now you know,” replied the father in a genuinely sympathetic manner. (Of course, Dave did his own cheating previously by pretending to be someone he was not while trying to woo an out-of-his-league coed, but that’s another story.)
Te’o is somewhat like Stoller in this story, an individual who still seems to have plenty of “kid” in him that was ingratiating to the masses. Because Te’o did possess that touch of childlike joy and a gentle, trusting soul, Swarbrick said “in many ways, Manti was the perfect mark” to be caught in the hook.
Yet what consistently set him apart in his four years at Notre Dame was Te’o also consistently displayed the maturity of a wise man — an “old soul,” as Diaco would describe. Poet’s say love can make one blind … but it also can make you deaf and dumb. Probably 99 percent of the world has been there.
Something never seemed quite right about the Kekua story. She was the “love of his life,” yet he didn’t attend the funeral — mainly because there wasn’t one. There was a given assumption that they had “met” and visited each other, yet the facts coming out now is it was strictly on-line or phone line. At the same time, Te'o was wearing a ring to honor her. Even Swarbrick admitted that after talking extensively with Te’o about the new revelations, the AD also originally misinterpreted what “met” meant, noting that the verb was “not one I might have chosen.”
This poignant tragedy became such a media sensation and human interest piece, that everyone (including yours truly) just ran with it without having any real fact-checking on whether she indeed had attended and graduated from Stanford, where her family was, or even contact or a statement from the family on the young lady’s courageous fight being honored by one of the greatest college players in the game.
To many, it now might come across as the greatest locker room ruse since 1918-30 Irish head coach Knute Rockne, in a speech prior to a game, wept to his team that his gravely ill young son Billy had just sent a telegram that read, “I want daddy’s team to win.” Upon their return to the train station, the victorious and exhausted Notre Dame team discovered there was nobody healthier in the greeting line than poor little Billy.
I can buy that Te’o was Catfished. No human being is immune to getting duped, especially one who is still of college age. Swarbrick referred to it as “a casual cruelty.” But it’s a fair question to ask that if Te’o never actually met her face to face, why continue to cultivate a mythology? Was it for “attention-mongering”? It’s also credible to me when Swarbrick, when told that the impression nationally is going to be that Te’o was, at best, disingenuous, responds with, “Then you don’t know Manti.” I believe he indeed might have been a victim because … that’s what I want to believe. He's earned the right to be believed that his grief was genuine. This is when a good name and reputation reaps dividends.
However, there are too many layers to this story to take it at face value without actually hearing from Te’o himself. Even then, some doubt might exist. As Swarbrick summarized, “this is Manti's story to tell and we believe he should have the right to tell it, which he is going to do.”
Stay tuned for the next episode of “As The Dome Turns.”