Lance Armstrong must be the happiest man in America today. A Deadspin report alleging that Manti Te'o's girlfriend was a hoax, and that Te'o likely knew it, has rocked the sports world to its core on a day that Lance Armstrong is set to out himself as a cheat. According to Deadspin, Manti Te'o motive for participating in the lie was a desire for publicity. Why would America's most beloved college athlete since Tim Tebow, the star of the nation's most famous team, need to do anything for more publicity? Without proper context this seems like an absolutely preposterous motive. While Notre Dame's dream 12-0 season made Manti Te'o as exposed and admired as any athlete (pro or college) in America, its important to remember that Manti Te'o, linebacker, didn't become Manti Te'o, legend, until after two prime time performances in September. Games that were played in the immediate wake of his girlfriend's "passing."
On September 15th the 2-0 #20 Fighting Irish, fresh off a nail biting 20-17 win against lowly Purdue, traveled to East Lansing, Michigan, to take on the #10 Michigan State Spartans in a nationally televised game on ABC. Coming into the game, Notre Dame had lost 6 straight games against ranked teams and hadn't defeated a top-10 team in seven years. College Game Day's pregame storyline focused on the heartbreaking story of the ND senior captain, who had just three days earlier, lost both his grandmother and 22 year old girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, within a six-hour span. Famously, Te'o elected to take the field that Saturday instead of returning home to attend his girlfriend's funeral because she had told him, "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." He told reporters she had simply requested he send her two white roses.
With the eyes of the nation upon him, Te'o responded with the performance of a lifetime. He recorded 12 tackles and almost single handily shut down one of the nation's most feared rushers, Le'Veon Bell, who was held to just 77 yards on 19 carries - just two weeks after he had rushed for 210 yards and 2 TDs against Boise State. At the time Brian Kelly declared this the"signature win" of his three year tenure and famously dedicated the game ball to Lennay Kekua. Cameras caught an emotional Brian Kelly ordering Te'o to deliver the game ball to her family. Tears were shed, coach and captain embraced. It was after that game that the legend of Manti Te'o was born. When Te'o returned home to South Bend for the next week's game against #18 Michigan on NBC, he found the tens of thousands of Notre Dame faithful in the stadium wearing leis in solidarity with their new hero. Te'o was down a girlfriend but could take refuge in the fact that 80,000+ roaring fans would support him unconditionally. Te'o responded with two key interceptions which sealed a 13-6 Irish victory which kept the Irish's perfect record alive. After dynamic prime time performances on national television against Michigan State and Michigan the pride of Honolulu's Punahou School catapulted from relatively unknown to the top of the Heisman trophy short list. Te'o had cemented his place amongst the pantheon of Notre Dame football greats. He was universally admired.
Fast forward past the dominating performance at Oklahoma, the narrow escape against Pitt, and the epic goal line stands against Stanford and USC to December 6, 2012. #1 ranked Notre Dame's All-American middle linebacker Manti Te'o appeared to be on top of the world. After becoming the first defensive recipient of the Maxwell Award since 1980, a dream season that had begun the previous winter when he elected to spurn NFL riches had manifested itself as the stuff of legend. He had become what EA Sports deems a "Campus Legend." No one had ever won six national awards in one season yet here was the Hawai'i native criss-crossing country on the awards circuit collecting trophies like a church usher soliciting dollar bills during holy week: he won six for the Gipper. Into the collection tray went the Maxwell, Chuck Bednarik, Camp, Butkus, Lombardi and Nagurski awards which were to be deposited somewhere beneath the Golden Dome, protected by the vigilant gaze of Touchdown Jesus. On that night in Orlando, Te'o officially became the most decorated player in college football history, yet for Irish fans he was something even more than that. He was the second coming, the man who in the midst of deep personal tragedy had willed Notre Dame football out of a two decade slump of irrelevance. Notre Dame nation was going back to the promised land and Manti Te'o had enabled all of the faithful to take their talents to South Beach. If the College of Cardinals was holding elections for Pope this devout Mormon may just have won. He was universally cherished.
He was on his way to New York to go claim his Heisman. He finished as the runner-up, nearly becoming the first strictly defensive player to hoist the sport's most treasured prize. In defeat, he was called a trailblazer who it was believed had opened the door to a future defensive player to win the award. Even after an incredibly poor performance against Alabama in the BCS National Championship Te'o had achieved such vaunted, irreproachable status that he was being called the most beloved player in Notre Dame history. The Hawai'i native endeared himself to the nation like no player since Tim Tebow by way of his unshakable faith, impeccable character, and peerless leadership. He was unconditionally loved.
We didn't know that when we struggled mightily against Alabama he was burdened from within by a ticking time bomb of a terrible secret that was certain to blow up at an unknown time, destroying Te'o's image as a man of superlative virtue that had been cultivated over a lifetime of doing the right thing. That's why this hurts...
It is from those soaring heights which the demi-god Manti Te'o finds himself falling today. A groundbreaking post from Deadspin.com detailed a string of events so previously unfathomable that it threatens to tarnish Te'o's entire legacy and possibly even cloud his NFL future. The shocking revelation that Manti Te'o's late girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who prior to the national championship game may have been the most famous girlfriend in college sports, not only hadn't actually died of leukemia as we'd all been told, she never actually existed. Whether Te'o was an innocent victim of an elaborate 'catfishing hoax' as Notre Dame proclaims or an active participant in a publicity seeking fraud as Deadspin suggests remains unknown. This story doesn't add up no matter which theory you subscribe too. If it was a hoax and he was an innocent victim why did his family repeatedly lie about meeting the girl? What were they trying to hide? If it was a publicity stunt why was he actually spending all those hours talking on the phone at night? Who was he talking to? The questions are profound and troubling.
If Notre Dame's Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick is to be believed, Te'o received a phone call on December 6th, from a number he knew to belong to his deceased girlfriend Lennay Kekua. When he answered, the familiar voice on the other line is reported to have told him that it was her, Lennay, and she wasn't actually dead. The female on the other end of the line attempted to rekindle a relationship with Te'o. If this account is to be believed, its completely reasonable that Te'o was beyond stunned. That Te'o allegedly kept this call secret from everyone, including his family until returning to Hawai'i for Christmas break seems fishy to even his biggest fan. How could he have not reached out to somebody about this? It wasn't until December 26th that Te'o confessed to Coach Brian Kelly and Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco about the contents of the call. Kelly notified Swarbrick who in turn commissioned an independent investigator to get to the bottom of this. Notre Dame and Manti Te'o proceeded to not address the issue for three weeks until yesterday's post from Deadspin revealed the hoax. Now all hell has broken lose. Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick proudly stood 100% behind Te'o last night and is convinced Te'o was the innocent victim of an elaborate hoax. However this is the same man who stood 100% by his head football coach after a team manager named Declan Sullivan was killed after falling from a scissor lift where he had been filming practice during a vicious wind storm. Jack Swarbrick is a great athletic director at Notre Dame because he also puts the university's interests paramount to all other concerns. In his press conference while supporting his star player fully he did say that this was 'Manti's story to tell.'
With details still emerging it is important to let Manti Te'o tell his story. He's earned that even if most people are quick to throw him under the bus. No matter how this turns out this is an incredibly sad ending to one of the greatest college football careers of all time.
Regardless, serious questions remain:
1: Is Manti Te'o the biggest idiot on earth or a vicious sociopath? Is he simply the victim of a single lie that got blown out of control by the media as a teammate suggusted?
2: If Manti Te'o received the call on December 7th why did he wait three weeks to tell anyone about it? How do you not go to at least your parents, if not a school guidance councilor, teammate, or coach right away if you receive a phone call from your girl friend whom you know to be dead.
3: Where was Stanford on this? For months Stanford University let a story circulate in the national media (New York Times, ESPN, etc) involving the death of a 22 year old student/alum. If Lennay Kekua never attended Stanford should the University not stepped in to correct the record? Where was the Stanford student newspaper on this? Where was the fact checking?
4: Why did Manti Te'o, and his family, previously lie about meeting Lennay Kekua in person on multiple occasions? The South Bend Tribune printed a story detailing Lennay Kekua and Manti Te'o's fairytale meeting outside the Notre Dame team bus after the 2009 Stanford game. Who gave them that story? Why is an NFL player convinced Te'o's fake dead girlfriend is real?
5: Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly and AD Jack Swarbrick knew about this on December 26th. Why wait instead of getting ahead of the story? What would they have done if he'd won the Heisman Trophy?
6 What is the nature of Manti Te'o's relationship with Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the man Deadspin holds responsible for perpetrating the hoax? Why was he sitting in Manti Te's's seats for the Notre Dame-USC Game? Why did they constantly interact on twitter?
7: If this actually was a publicity ploy by Manti Te'o why would he go through all the trouble to talk on the phone with this girl every night for 8 hours a day for four months? If there was no Lennay Kekua who was the girl on the phone? Was there a girl on the phone?
8: Why did it take so long for this story to come out? Why didn't the girl whose picture was used as Lennay Kekua not come forward earlier?
9: Can Manti Te'o prove that he purchased the infamous white roses that he supposedly sent to Lennay Kekua's funeral?
10: Where was the fact checking by Sports Illustrated, ESPN, the New York Times, and ever other major media outlet in America?
So many questions. So few answers. So bizarre a story. You have to hope for Te'o's sake that he is telling the truth. If Te'o was lying about his dead girlfriend to simply become more popular most Americans will turn on him more harshly than they ever turned on Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, or Lance Armstrong, and deservedly so. Growing up I was taught that character is who you are in the dark. Right now many people are afraid to pull back the curtain to learn the truth about who and what Manti Te'o, college football's golden boy, really is.
Stay tuned for more on this developing story.