The tear-jerking story of Notre Dame football player Manti Te’so standout who excelled on the field in spite of the death of his girlfriend has been revealed as an elaborate hoax.
In a press conference tonight, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said that Manti Te’o was the victim of online predators who took advantage of the athlete’s generosity and kindness.
Jack Swarbrick pointed to the documentary film Catfish and an MTV program of the same name in explaining how easy it can be to fool somebody into believing an online relationship is real.
The nation was captivated by the story of the star linebacker, who has been regarded as a future star of the NFL, who played an award-winning season despite personal tragedy.
In numerous published reports, Manti Te’o said that while this past season has brought many triumphs to his life, there were also twin tragedies – the deaths of his 72-year-old grandmother and his girlfriend, Lannay Kekua, within a day of each other.
A comprehensive investigation by Deadspin.com found that while his grandmother did indeed die on September 12, 2012, Lannay Kekua did not – nor did she even exist.
Jack Swarbrick said that Manti Te’o approached his coaches on December 26, saying that he had gotten a call from the number he knew to be Lannay Kekua’s – and a voice at the other end of the line said: “I’m not dead.”
The school conducted its own investigation and found that Manti Te’o had been taken for a ride by what Jack Swarbrick calls a sophisticated hoax orchestrated by “a remarkable number of characters – both male and female”.
He said: “It was real to Manti. There was no suspicion that it wasn’t. The pain was real, the grief was real, the affection was real – and that’s the nature of this sad cruel game.”
Jack Swarbrick added that Manti Te’o himself will likely speak on Thursday.
“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,” Manti Te’o said in a statement.
“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.”
However, he stopped short of saying he had ever met her in person or correcting reports that said he had, though he did on numerous occasions talk about how special the relationship was to him.
“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.
“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.”
Among the evidence collected in Notre Dame’s independent investigation was “online chatter” that showed some people knew about the prank and were “taking joy in it”, Jack Swarbrick said.
On the night of the BCS title game, one Twitter user, @jayRahz posted: “I wonder if the real Lennay Kekua is watching the game.. Cause I know the fake one that didn’t die is not watching over the Irish!”
But despite the university’s claims, there is still substantial doubt that Manti Te’o could have been fooled so easily – and for so long.
The story goes that “Lennay” had tweeted Manti Te’o after a college football game between Stanford (where she was a student) and Notre Dame in 2009.
It sparked a friendship, and over the next few years, Manti Te’o would often tweet to a person with the Twitter handle LovaLovaLoveYOU – a name that was later changed to LennayKay and finally LoveMSMK.
On October 10, 2011, Manti Te’o tweeted to lovalovaloveYOU: “Nice to meet you too ma’am.”
The relationship progressed from there, with the football star and his “friend” becoming a couple sometime in January 2012, according to Deadspin.
But the relationship only existed online and by phone, and the two had never met face-to-face, Jack Swarbrick said. He added that they had plans to meet several times, including in Manti Te’o's native Hawaii, but she never showed up.
The courtship took a tragic turn when it was reported that Lennay Kekua was involved in a serious car accident in California sometime last year.
After recovering from the accident, she was apparently diagnosed with leukemia.
In September, the South Bend Tribune reported that Manti Te’o’s grandmother, Anette Santiago, had died. Hours later, he learned of Lennay Kekua’s death.
Major media outlets, including the Associated Press, New York Times, the Tribune, Sports Illustrated and ESPN took the bait, and reported on the death of “Lennay Kekua”.
Manti Te’o did not attend Lennay Kekua’s funeral, insisting that she “made me promise that I would stay and play”.
ESPN reporter Gene Wojciechowski, who had reported Lennay Kekua’s death for the network, said on Wednesday that he too found it odd that there was no obituary or death notice.
He said that when he brought his concerns up to Manti Te’o, he was told to “back off”, according to Deadspin.
Numerous online donations were pledged to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, according to Deadspin.
But the photos of Lennay Kekua on Twitter are actually of a California woman known only as “Reba” who told the sports website that she does not know Manti Te’o and is alarmed that she has emerged as the dead woman’s face.
She did, however, reveal that one of the pictures posted to Lennay Kekua’s Twitter account was a photo she took of herself that she sent to a former high school classmate, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo at his request.
Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, 22, a former California student athlete and the son of a pastor, is revealed to be in on the hoax.
Ronaiah Tuiasosopo comes from a huge football family.
His father Titus, now pastor at the Oasis Christian Church of the Antelope Valley, is a former USC football player himself.
An uncle, Navy Tuiasosopo, played three games with the Los Angeles Rams in 1987. Another uncle and cousins also played the game.
The connection between Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and Manti Te’o is not clear, but they were acquaintances who exchanged birthday greetings and other pleasantries, according to Deadspin.
At Roniah Tuiasosopo’s home in Palmdale, California, a person who answered the door refused to comment.
Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown told WSBT: “On December 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te’o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia.
“The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax.
“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.”
It was claimed that Manti Te’o came up short in the Heisman trophy voting because the storied award favors offensive players.
But his impressive season was not without merit, as Manti Te’o won each of the seven other awards he was nominated for, including the Butkus and Lombardi awards.
Manti Te’o finished second in the voting, and leading Notre Dame to its first appearance in the BCS championship.
Manti Te’o and the Irish lost the title game to Alabama, 42-14 on January 7.
He has graduated and was set to begin preparing for the NFL combine and draft at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, this week.
Four days ago Manti Te’o posted on his Twitter account: “Can’t wait to start training with the guys! Workin to be the best! The grind continues! (hash)Future.”