The heart-wrenching story of college football star Manti Te’o triumphing on the gridiron while reeling from the tragic death of his girlfriend has been revealed to be a hoax.
The Notre Dame linebacker’s story played out in the pages of Sports Illustrated and the airwaves of ESPN over a period of months. Te’o girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, was said to have died of cancer Sept. 11, 2012, within hours of the football star’s grandmother. After hearing of the deaths, the story went, Te’o led his team to a 20-3 upset victory over Michigan State, a game in which he recorded 12 tackles.
“They were with me,” Te’o said in an interview with ABC after the victory. “I couldn’t do without the support of my family and my girlfriend’s family. I’m so grateful for all the love and support that all the fans, both Michigan State and Notre Dame, and fans around the world for supporting me and my family and my girlfriend’s family. I miss them. I miss them. But I know that I’ll see them again one day.”
While the death of his grandmother Annette Santiago did occur as reported, an investigation by Deadspin revealed Kekua never existed. The relationship now is being described as a large-scale hoax.
Kekua, a 22-year-old Stanford student, was said to have been in a serious car accident six months before her death. According to a story published by Sports Illustrated, Te’o phoned her every night in the hospital and slept with her on the line. However, Deadspin found no records regarding her time at Stanford, her car accident or her death.
In another odd turn, Te’o did not attend his girlfriend’s funeral. He appeared on CBS This Morning to tell his story and explain why he did not attend his girlfriend’s funeral, telling the network she had urged him not to:
“Babe, if anything happens to me, you promise that you’ll stay there and you’ll play and you’ll honor me through the way you play,” Te’o recalled her saying.
Before her apparent death, Te’o publicly interacted with his girlfriend on Twitter.
Deadspin tracked down a woman whose pictures were used on social media profiles for Kekua. The woman, whose identify is being withheld to protect her privacy, was unaware her photos had been used on the dead woman’s profile and said all but one of the photos came from her private Facebook and Instagram accounts.
But she never had posted one of the photos online and said it was a personal photo she e-mailed to a high school classmate, who claimed he wanted it to cheer up his cousin who was in the hospital.
That classmate, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, is a former high school quarterback who appears to have some connections to Te’o, though their relationship is unclear. Several social media interactions between the two suggest they know each other.
The plot thickened in November, when a Twitter account (@uilanirae ) of a person claiming to be the sister of Te’o’s dead girlfriend emerged. Te’o plugged the account to his followers, giving it a shout-out and writing, “she’s new to Twitter and really needs some followers! One of the realist people I know.”
But the @uilanirae account \ soon was deleted after tweets from a different Twitter account alleged @uilanirae was run by a woman named Donna Tei, not Kekua’s sister.
Deadspin tracked down Tei’s account and noted she had contacted Nev Schulman, star of the 2010 film Catfish and executive producer of the MTV series of the same name. The show and film are about carrying out romance through fake online personas.
People close to Tuiasosopo believe if he was responsible for the creation Kekua, Te’o was likely involved in the scheme as well. But Notre Dame and Te’o released statements Wednesday saying the football star was the victim of a hoax.
University spokesman Dennis Brown wrote on Facebook that coaches had been informed Dec. 26, 2012, by Te’o and his parents of the hoax.
“The university immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax,” Brown wrote. “While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.”
Te’o released his own 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. It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother’s death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life. I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been. In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was. Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I’m looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft.”