It was one of the heartwarming subplots of the BCS Championship Game that filled Sun Life Stadium and captivated the nation. Manti Te’o, charismatic star of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, had led the team to an undefeated regular season despite the wrenching loss of his girlfriend, who died of leukemia.
The story was woven into TV and print profiles of the student-athlete, burnishing the legend of the linebacker who was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, awarded to college football’s best player.
The story was a hoax.
The dead girl didn’t exist.
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The charade was revealed Wednesday by the online sports site Deadspin in a lengthy story.
Image-conscious Notre Dame responded swiftly, saying the girlfriend was indeed concocted but that Te’o was the innocent victim not the perpetrator.
Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said an investigation by a firm the school hired had convinced him that Te’o was duped into an online relationship with a nonexistent woman whose death was then faked by those behind the hoax.
By Te’o’s own account, she was an “online” girlfriend. Swarbrick said they also talked by phone.
“Nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te’o one iota,” Swarbrick said at a news conference Wednesday night.
Te’o said in a statement: “This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her.
“To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating,” he said.
Timothy Burke, who broke the story with Jack Dickey on the Deadspin site, isn’t totally swayed by Notre Dame’s response to the story.
“He got suckered online. It happens to people all the time,” Burke said in a Wednesday interview with The Miami Herald’s Dan Le Batard on 790 The Ticket. What’s curious, he said, was the level of detail in some of the stories.
Among those details: “That she was a student at Stanford and they met at the Stanford-Notre Dame game in 2009. We know that didn’t happen because the girlfriend never existed. We know she never went out to Hawaii to visit him because she never existed. How did we come to know those stories?”
Deadspin reported that there was no record of a Lennay Marie Kekua, the woman named in the stories, dying with the Social Security Administration, that a record search produced no obituary or funeral announcement. She supposedly attended Stanford but there is no mention of her death in the Stanford student newspaper.
The website reported the Stanford registrar’s office had no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news.
There are a few Twitter and Instagram accounts registered to Lennay Kekua, but the website reported photographs identified as Kekua online and in TV news reports are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old woman who is not named Lennay Kekua.
Burke said the authors tracked down the woman in the photos in California.
She is, he said, “very much alive and does not have leukemia and has never met Manti Te’o. ... From there we were able to weave the web.”
The week before Notre Dame played Michigan State on Sept. 15, coach Brian Kelly told reporters that Te’o’s grandmother and a friend had both died. Te’o didn’t miss the game. The linebacker explained Kekua had told him not to miss a game if she died. Te’o turned in one of his best performances of the season in the 20-3 victory in East Lansing, and his playing through heartache became a prominent theme during the Irish’s undefeated regular season.
Burke told Le Batard: “When you look at the reporting of the story [around the country] you see how many discrepancies are in the reporting... Some articles said that Manti Te’o’s grandmother died first. Some said his girlfriend died first. Some of them said that his girlfriend sent a condolence text to Brian Te’o [Manti Te’o’s father] on the death of Manti’s grandmother at a time where she was about to die. When you look at the list of discrepancies you say, ‘Oh it’s obviously a made-up story.’ No one ever asked.”
Information from The Associated Press and from radio station 790 The Ticket was used in this report.