SOUTH BEND, Ind. » Not once, but twice after he supposedly discovered his online girlfriend of three years never even existed, Notre Dame All-American linebacker Manti Te’o perpetuated the heartbreaking story about her death.
An Associated Press review of news coverage found that the Heisman Trophy runner-up talked about his doomed love in a Web interview on Dec. 8 and again in a newspaper interview published Dec. 10. He and the university said Wednesday that he learned Dec. 6 that it was all a hoax, that not only wasn’t she dead, she wasn’t real.
On Thursday, a day after Te’o’s inspiring, playing-through-heartache story was exposed as a bizarre lie, Te’o and Notre Dame faced questions from sports writers and fans about whether he really was duped, as he claimed, or whether he and the university were complicit in the hoax and misled the public, perhaps to improve his chances of winning the Heisman.
Yahoo sports columnist Dan Wetzel said the case has "left everyone wondering whether this was really the case of a naive football player done wrong by friends or a fabrication that has yet to play to its conclusion."
Gregg Doyel, national columnist for CBSSports.com, was more direct.
"Nothing about this story has been comprehensible, or logical, and that extends to what happens next," he wrote. "I cannot comprehend Manti Te’o saying anything that could make me believe he was a victim."
On Wednesday, Te’o and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the player was drawn into a virtual romance with a woman who used the phony name Lennay Kekua, and was fooled into believing she died of leukemia in September. They said his only contact with the woman was via the Internet and telephone.
Te’o also lost his grandmother — for real — the same day his girlfriend supposedly died, and his role in leading Notre Dame to its best season in decades endeared him to fans and put him at the center of college football’s top feel-good story of the year.
Relying on information provided by Te’o’s family members, the South Bend Tribune reported in October that Te’o and Kekua first met, in person, in 2009, and the two had also gotten together in Hawaii, where Te’o grew up.
Sports Illustrated posted a previously unpublished transcript of a one-on-one interview with Te’o from Sept. 23. In it he goes into great detail about his relationship with Kekua and her physical ailments. He also mentioned meeting her for the first time after a game in California.
"We met just, ummmm, just she knew my cousin. And kind of saw me there so. Just kind of regular," he told SI.
Among the outstanding questions Thursday: Why didn’t Te’o ever clarify the nature of his relationship as the story took on a life of its own?
Te’o’s agent, Tom Condon, said the athlete had no plans to make any public statements Thursday in Bradenton, Fla., where he has been training with other NFL hopefuls at the IMG Academy.
Notre Dame said Te’o found out that Kekua was not a real person through a phone call he received at an awards ceremony in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 6. He told Notre Dame coaches about the situation Dec. 26.
The AP’s media review turned up two instances during that gap when the football star mentioned Kekua in public.
Te’o was in New York for the Heisman presentation Dec. 8 and, during an interview before the ceremony that ran on the WSBT.com, the website for a South Bend TV station, Te’o said, "I mean, I don’t like cancer at all. I lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer. So I’ve really tried to go to children’s hospitals and see, you know, children."
In a column that first ran in The on Dec. 10, Te’o recounted why he played a few days after he found out Kekua died in September, and the day she was supposedly buried.
"She made me promise, when it happened, that I would stay and play," he said Dec. 9 while attending a ceremony in Newport Beach, Calif., for the Lott IMPACT Trophy.
On Wednesday, when deadspin.com broke the story, Swarbrick said Notre Dame did not go public with its findings sooner because it expected the Te’o family to come forward first.
Asked whether the NCAA was monitoring the Te’o story for possible rules violations, NCAA President Mark Emmert said, "We don’t know anything more than you do."
"We’re learning about this through the stories just the same as you are," he told reporters at the organization’s convention in Dallas. "But we have to wait and see what really transpired there. It’s obviously (a) very disturbing story, and it’s hard to tell where the facts lie at this point.
"But Notre Dame is obviously looking into it, and there will be a lot more to come forward. Right now it just looks … well, we don’t know what the facts are, so I shouldn’t comment beyond that."