Death of Te'o's girlfriend a hoax?

Tribune News Service • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:04 PM

Facing a media throng just days before competing for a national championship, Notre Dame's star linebacker Manti Te'o fielded a question about the death of his girlfriend and his ability to rise above the tragedy.

It was a benign question, one he had heard dozens of times before as Lennay Kekua's passing had been woven so tightly into the narrative of his triumphant senior year.

And he answered it as he always had.

But at that time Te'o — and university officials — knew there was far more to the story than platitudes about football and family.

A week earlier, on Dec. 26, the Heisman runner-up told Notre Dame officials that his girlfriend did not exist and that he was a victim of an elaborate internet hoax, the school said Wednesday.

"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, it roped him more and more into the trap," Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said. "He was not a person who would have a second thought about offering his assistance and help."

Swarbrick outlined a bizarre story in which Te'o learned his girlfriend never existed more than three months after her supposed death. The player received a phone call Dec. 6, while at an awards show, from what he believed was Kekua's old cell phone number.

The woman on the other end — in a voice he recognized as Kekua's — told him that she wasn't dead. She later tried to rekindle the relationship, Swarbrick said.

The scam does more than just shatter a college football fairytale. It also leaves a black mark on sports journalism, as many news outlets ran stories about Kekua's passing without verifying her death.

There was no published obituary for Kekua and no California driver's license issued to anyone with that name. The Social Security Administration database had no record of anyone with the surname Kekua dying in 2012.

Yet respected national publications such as Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times all ran stories about Te'o's heartbreak.

Describing the situation as "painful and humiliating," Te'o said he believed he maintained an authentic relationship with Kekua over the phone and via the internet.

The Deadspin story, however, is raising questions about Te'o's involvement in the ruse. The site says that Kekua's purported twitter account was created by a California man with ties to the linebacker and his family.

An unnamed source suggested the death was a publicity stunt hatched by Te'o and his West Coast counterpart. At the very least, Te'o and his family have made the truth difficult to decipher because they all made references to Te'o meeting Kekua during their courtship.

In October, for example, Te'o described her to ESPN as the most beautiful person he had ever met and his father told the South Bend Tribune in October that Kekua had traveled to Hawaii "every once in a while."

When asked about rising above the tragedy in the days before the game, Te'o said, "I think whenever you're in football, it takes your mind off a lot of things. You know this team is very special to me and the guys on it have been there for me through the good times and the bad times."

Recommended for You