If you don’t follow college football, you may have never heard the name “Manti Te’o” until this bizarre scandal dominated the morning shows last week. If you do follow the sport, this has been the biggest story of the year, even before the scandal broke. Either way, this is an interview you won’t want to miss. But first, let us catch you up.
Who Is Manti Te’o?
He’s the type of guy you want to root for – genuine, hardworking, decorated. He came in second for the Heisman Trophy and he’s a projected first-round pick for the NFL draft. He’s a devout Mormon and very close with his family.
You want to root for Manti Te’o not just on the football field, but also in his personal life. You like hearing about his beautiful Polynesian girlfriend, Lennay, who not only goes to Stanford University and is a model, but who plays volleyball and is his biggest fan. You feel true sadness when this girl becomes his girlfriend and then dies rather suddenly of Leukemia… the same week of his grandmother’s death.
You hope Manti can lead Notre Dame to a victory over Michigan on the night of his girlfriend’s funeral and when he does, you’re touched that his coach awards the game ball to Lennay. You expect correctly that Manti has already sent white roses to his girlfriend’s funeral, which he, of course, knows were her favorite.
…you kind of feel like you know him. Or at least you want to know him.
Watching Manti on television, you kind of feel like you know him. Or at least you want to know him. He could be your son, your nephew, your brother. When you watch him in interviews, you can’t help but like him.
Everybody from ESPN to the New York Times to each of Manti’s thousands of fans believed his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, existed. It wasn’t even a question. It was perhaps the best part of his story. Manti spoke about her lovingly in interviews and his teammates spoke to her on the phone in the locker room. Manti’s dad talked about the time his son spent with her in Hawaii and Manti recounted the overwhelming feeling he got when he felt his girlfriend’s hand for the first time.
Manti graced the cover of Sports Illustrated on October 1st under the headline “The Full Manti” and proved unstoppable.
…through a mix of oversights, untruths and tips, this all-too-real four-year fairy tale came to a head…
But through a mix of oversights, untruths and tips, this all-too-real four-year fairy tale came to a head on January 16th of this year. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, an acquaintance of Manti’s – and who Manti knew as Lennay’s cousin – called him to apologize and say it had all been a hoax and that Ronaiah had orchestrated the whole thing. That same night, Deadspin released an article uncovering the scam after receiving a tip on their website. Manti – along with the entire country – had been duped.
Now the question that many are asking: Did Manti Te’o assist in the hoax to gain sympathy points from fans and media? Or was he a victim in a hoax that was taken too far?
Did Manti Know?
Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick says the university conducted an investigation and notes, “nothing that I’ve learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te’o one iota.” He addresses the intricacies of the hoax, “There are a remarkable number of characters involved. We don’t know how many people they represent. There are male and female characters, brothers, cousins, mother, and we don’t know if it’s two people playing multiple characters or multiple people.”
The supposed relationship got so close that Manti would regularly keep in contact with Lennay’s parents and siblings. He even spoke to her 9-year-old girl cousin on the phone and met her at a Notre Dame-USC football game as a way to remember Lennay. Ronaiah set up the meeting.
Before being diagnosed with leukemia, the story went that Lennay had been in a serious car accident in California. Sports Illustrated reported how Manti would call Lennay while she was in the hospital and stay on the line with her throughout the night. Sports Illustrated reported, “Her relatives told him that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice.”
Lennay called, texted and sent letters to Manti before each game.
As for Manti’s parents, they were looking forward to having a daughter-in-law. Lennay kept in touch with Manti’s friends and family and spoke to them on the phone. Manti’s dad told reporters that their son and Lennay had met in person in Hawaii. Manti admits that he had told his dad that to avoid questions and gain parental approval.
“So I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away. So people wouldn’t think that I was some crazy dude,” Manti told ESPN.
She had apparently lost her battle with leukemia.
On September 11th, Manti’s grandmother died. A day later, Lennay’s brother called Manti while he was in the locker room and hysterically told him “she’s gone.” She had apparently lost her battle with leukemia.
“He got real emotional, crying,” one teammate who was there told ABC News.
Three months later in late December – before Manti gets the call from Ronaiah – Lennay calls Manti and says she’s not dead. Her name is Leah and she’s going to reveal the truth on January 16th. Slowly, Manti stops mentioning her in interviews and begins seeking advice from his family, friends and teammates.
According to Deadspin, friends and family of Ronaiah say he created Lennay in 2008 and has initiated relationships between her and others in the past. Manti told ESPN that he had texted his cousin and another football player asking whether if based on prior relationships they knew if Lennay was real. They both said unequivocally – yes. They apparently – and others including a Polynesian beauty queen – had been duped before by the same person.