Manti Te'o Story A Hoax, Not A Tragedy

So Many Questions Remain

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Let's back up a moment to early October and a piece Gene Wojciechowski did for ESPN's "College GameDay." To this moment, it remains one of the most powerful voices in spreading the gospel of Manti Te'o's strength and love and virtue.

"Faith is believing in something that you most likely can't see, but you believe to be true," Te'o said softly into the ESPN cameras as he recounted his remarkable personal journey. "You feel in your heart and your soul that it's true. You still take that leap."

And now Manti Te'o and Notre Dame ask us to have faith in them. Ask us to have faith in Manti's story, a story of love that seems to have more holes than the Notre Dame defense in the BCS title game against Alabama. Ask us to believe the investigators the school hired that demonstrated Te'o was the victim of a "sad and very cruel hoax."

Ask us to take that leap.

Ask us to take it as athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who sturdily endured the football-related alleged sexual battery, threats and subsequent suicide of Lizzy Seeberg, broke down in tears during a news conference over the story of a fake death of a fake person named Lennay Kekua. "The single most-trusting human being I've ever met will never be able to trust the same way again," Swarbrick said of Te'o. "That's an incredible tragedy."

A cruel hoax on Te'o? Yes, if his story is true. A hoax on the rest of us? Yes, if his story is not. It is not an incredible tragedy.

I want to believe Te'o. I am having a hard time believing him. I want to believe that a religious young man, one elevated to almost angelic qualities in the national media during the course of Notre Dame's autumn rise, is guilty only of naivete, at worst a sucker. I fear we are the suckers.

Te'o called Kekua the "most beautiful girl I ever met." He called her the "love of his life." Yet he never met the love of his life in person, only online and over the phone. Not even on Skype? The two supposedly planned to meet several times only to have Kekua cancel each time.

Te'o is a devout Mormon. Yes, even as a virile football player, his concept of growing affection and love could have focused much more on the emotional and spiritual than the physical. So wouldn't it follow that if she was badly injured in a car accident — on the brink of death, according to Sports Illustrated — he'd go see her for comfort and support? And as she was dying of leukemia, he said they called each other, talked late into the night and remained on the line as they slept. Yet he didn't even visit her?

Te'o said afterward that Lennay 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." OK, that might explain one game and 12 tackles against Michigan State three days after the "death," or the following Saturday when Notre Dame played Michigan — Te'o told SI the funeral was Sept. 22. Yet what about the weeks before or afterward? Why didn't he visit her family, her grave? And why did he turn down Wojciechowski's request to put him in touch with Kekua's family or to supply him with her photograph?

These are all bright red flags in 20-20 hindsight. Look, anybody can be duped. But you've got to wonder how anybody can be duped for so long. There's a story in the South Bend Tribune, from Te'o's father, Brian, how the two met briefly after a game at Stanford in November 2009. Te'o told SI they met at a Notre Dame-USC game in his sophomore year, yet Te'o tweeted Kekua's account in October 2011, "nice to meet u too ma'am."

There was no record of her attending Stanford, no record of her being hit by that drunk driver, no record of her death. The dates of her car accident, whether Kekua died before or after Teo's grandmother on Sept. 11, 12, 13 … there are all sorts of conflicting reports. The facts and fabrications, they are scattered all over the place — right down to Arizona Cardinals fullback Regan Mauia, incredibly, saying there is a Kekua and he met her in American Samoa in 2011 before she became involved with Te'o.

This is what I believe.

I believe that even after Penn State, after Lance Armstrong, after all the heroes whose feet turned to clay, it is human nature to continue our insatiable hunt for those heroes. We look to canonize mortals. We look to put them on pedestals. And, yes, that includes the media, especially the sports media. We can be so aggressive when going after "bad guys" and so believing in the telling of the feel-good stories. I throw no stones from my glass house.

When the story involves Notre Dame, that need can grow even more intense. A girlfriend dying as the Heisman Trophy-hopeful wins one in her memory? Ryan O'Neal in "Love Story" met Ronald Reagan in "Knute Rockne All American" and its heart-lifting result could be in movie theaters this summer.

Only the story wasn't true. Notre Dame's version is Te'o got a call on Dec. 6 while he was at the ESPN awards show. He recognized the number and voice. The voice told Te'o she wasn't dead after all. Only he didn't tell Notre Dame officials until Dec. 26. Swarbrick said the school was going to allow Te'o to tell his story and it probably would have been next week — if Deadspin hadn't broken it.

By that point, Deadspin had grabbed a hold of the narrative and a source close to Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was "80 percent sure" Te'o was in on the scheme. Deadspin pointed to Tuiasosopo, from a football-playing family and evidently a friend of Te'o, as a central figure in the hoax. Then Tuiasosopo got a former high school classmate to send him a picture and, without her knowledge, used it in creating Kekua's profile.

While not saying that Te'o was part of the hoax or he knew Kekua didn't exist, a Notre Dame teammate told ESPN that players knew the woman wasn't a serious girlfriend and that Te'o played the aspect up as the tragic story of his grandmother and Kekua dying within six hours of each other was told and retold.

This begs for Te'o to carefully explain the entire, complicated story. On Wednesday night, Swarbrick made it sound as if it could happen Thursday. It did not.

As it stands I have as hard a time believing Te'o knew nothing until Dec. 6 as I do that he was in on an elaborate scheme from the start. Swarbrick pointed to the 2010 documentary "Catfish" in explaining how Te'o was duped into an online relationship. Yes, I believe the lonely and innocent people are vulnerable. And, yes, I believe Te'o could have been reeled in initially, but, sorry, I have a hard time believing a big-time college star, with so many social opportunities, gave his heart and soul for so long to someone who didn't exist. I want to believe it. I just don't.

Did he allow the story to be enriched because he was so embarrassed by being initially duped? Or did Te'o come to see the public-relations and marketing possibilities of the story, even mentioning Kekua in the media twice after Dec. 6?

I don't know.

I do have faith. Faith that a scorned media will eventually find the truth.

An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated what the alleged charges were in the Lizzy Seeberg case. It has since been corrected.

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