SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Not once but twice after he supposedly discovered his online girlfriend of three years never even existed, Notre Dame All-America linebacker Manti Te’o perpetuated the heartbreaking story about her death.
An Associated Press review of news coverage found that the Heisman Trophy runner-up talked about his doomed love in an online interview Dec. 8 and again in a newspaper interview published Dec. 10. He and the university said Wednesday that he learned Dec. 6 that it was a hoax — not only wasn’t she dead, she wasn’t real.
On Thursday, a day after Te’o’s inspiring story was exposed as a bizarre lie, Te’o and Notre Dame faced questions from sportswriters and fans about whether he really was duped, as he claimed, or whether he and the university were in on the hoax and misled the public, perhaps to improve his chances of winning the Heisman.
Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel said the case has “left everyone wondering whether this was really the case of a naïve football player done wrong by friends or a fabrication that has yet to play to its conclusion.”
On Wednesday, Te’o and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the player was drawn into a virtual romance with a woman who used the phony name Lennay Kekua and was fooled into believing she died of leukemia in September. They said his only contact with the woman was via the Internet and telephone.
Te’o also lost his grandmother — for real — the same day his girlfriend supposedly died, and his role in leading Notre Dame to its best season in decades put him at the center of college football’s biggest feel-good story of the year.
Relying on information provided by Te’o’s family, the South Bend Tribune reported in October that Te’o and Kekua first met, in person, in 2009, and that they had gotten together in Hawaii, where Te’o grew up.
Sports Illustrated posted a previously unpublished transcript of a one-on-one interview with Te’o from Sept. 23. In it, he goes into great detail about his relationship with Kekua and her physical ailments. He also mentioned meeting her for the first time after a game in California.
“We met just, ummmm, just she knew my cousin. And kind of saw me there so. Just kind of regular,” he told SI.
Te’o’s agent, Tom Condon, said the athlete had no plans to make any public statements Thursday in Bradenton, Fla., where he has been training with other NFL hopefuls at the IMG Academy.
Te’o was in New York for the Heisman presentation Dec. 8 and, during an interview before the ceremony that ran on the WSBT.com, the website for a South Bend TV station, Te’o said: “I mean, I don’t like cancer at all. I lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer. So I’ve really tried to go to children’s hospitals and see, you know, children.”
In a column that first ran in The Los Angeles Times on Dec. 10, Te’o recounted why he played a few days after he found out Kekua died in September, and the day she was supposedly buried.
“She made me promise, when it happened, that I would stay and play,” he said Dec. 9 while attending a ceremony in Newport Beach, Calif., for the Lott Impact Awards.