NOTRE DAME — It was a story that unified a football program and its entire fan base.
It’s a story told time and time again throughout the season: Lennay Kekua, girlfriend of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, had died of leukemia just hours after Te’o’s grandmother had also passed away. Te’o went on to play in the Michigan State game four days later and was cheered on by thousands of lei-clad fans the following week against Michigan.
It turns out — as Deadspin.com revealed and Notre Dame and Te’o later verified — that Kekua never existed.
Deadspin writers Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey detailed a timeline of Te’o’s relationship with Kekua — from their first interaction, which Te’o said happened in 2009 after a loss at Stanford — up to Sept. 11, 2012, the day Kekua reportedly succumbed to her cancer.
“The photographs identified as Kekua — in online tributes and on TV news reports — are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman who is not named Lennay Kekua,” Deadspin wrote. “She is not a Stanford graduate; she has not been in a severe car accident; and she does not have leukemia. And she has never met Manti Te’o.”
Shortly after the news flooded the Interet, Notre Dame released a statement verifying that Kekua wasn’t a real person and that Te’o was a “victim of what appears to be a hoax” and that the university immediately launched “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.”
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick stood by Te’o, saying that the Irish linebacker had no part in perpetrating the fraud.
Swarbrick said Te’o received a phone call on Dec. 26 “from a number he recognized as having been that he associated with Lennay Kekua. When he answered it, it was a person whose voice sounded like the same voice he had talked to, who told him that she was, in fact, not dead.”
Te’o first turned to his parents and then turned to Swarbrick, head coach Brian Kelly, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and a couple of teammates with the news. Notre Dame launched an independent investigation into the hoax.
According to Swarbrick, Te’o and Kekua had never met. Their relationship was strictly developed online and over the phone, but Swarbrick said it was still very real to Te’o.
“Every single thing about this until that day in the first week of September was real to Manti,” he said. “There was no suspicion that it wasn’t, no belief that it might not be. And so the pain was real. The grief was real. The affection was real. And that’s the nature of this sad, cruel game.”
When asked about Te’o’s own story about meeting Kekua in Stanford in 2009, Swarbrick said that while Te’o would have to tell his own story, he was under the impression that the verb “met” referred to “met online.”
Swarbrick got emotional in his defense of Te’o, pausing in one instance to collect himself.
“The thing I am most sad of, sad about is that the single most trusting human being I’ve ever met will never be able to trust in the same way again in his life” Swarbrick said. “That’s an incredible tragedy.”
Swarbrick said Te’o’s family had hoped to release the story themselves next week before the Deadspin article broke on Wednesday. Swarbrick said that he was under the impression that Te’o would address the situation sometime Thursday.
“At the end of the day, this is Manti’s story to tell and we believe he should have the right to tell it, which he is going to do,” Swarbrick said.
ESPN published a statement Wednesday evening that it had received from Te’o, who maintained that he met Kekua online and grew close with her.
“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,” Te’o told ESPN. “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.
“To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.
“It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother’s death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life.
“I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been.
“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.
“Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I’m looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft.”