The story goes that Te’o met Lennay Kekua on the Internet and began a “relationship” with her, although he never actually met her. On Sept. 12, his grandmother died. Within hours, he received news that “Kekua” had died of leukemia. This made big news, that the player carried on with a heavy heart of two deaths.
Well, Deadspin.com blew the whole thing up, reporting Wednesday that the woman did not exist. Te’o issued a statement saying he was part of a cruel hoax.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a news conference Wednesday night that coaches were informed by Te’o and his parents on Dec. 26 that Te’o had been the victim of what appeared to be a hoax. Someone using a fictitious name “apparently ingratiated herself” with Te’o, the school said, then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had died of leukemia.
“On the morning of Dec. 26, very early morning, Manti called his coaches to inform them that while he was in attendance at the ESPN awards show in Orlando, he received a phone call from a number he recognized as having been that he associated with Lennay Kekua,” Swarbrick said. “When he answered it, it was a person whose voice sounded like the same person he had talked to, who told him that she was, in fact, not dead. Manti was very unnerved by that, as you might imagine.”
The school hired an investigative firm that determined Te’o was duped into an online relationship with a woman whose death was then faked by the perpetrators of the hoax.
“I want to stress, as someone who has probably been as engaged in this as anyone in the past couple of weeks, that nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te’o one iota,” Swarbrick said Wednesday night.
Annette Santiago, Te’o’s 72-year-old grandmother, died in September. Six hours later he said he was told that “Kekua” had lost her battle with leukemia. After Notre Dame’s 20-3 win over Michigan State on Sept. 15, Te’o said:
“My family and my girlfriend’s family have received so much love and support from the Notre Dame family. Michigan State fans showed some love. And it goes to show that people understand that football is just a game, and it’s a game that we play, and we have fun doing it. But at the end of the day, what matters is the people who are around you, and family. I appreciate all the love and support that everybody’s given my family and my girlfriend’s family.”
According to Deadspin, the only photos that have been found online that identified Kekua are actually pictures of another 22-year-old woman. That woman, not named in the report, told Deadspin one of those photos likely was shared by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.
Deadspin contacted friends and relatives of Tuiasosopo, and the website reported that they believe Tuiasosopo created Kekua.
A Notre Dame source told ESPN he believes Te’o was not involved. But a friend of Tuiasosopo told Deadspin he was “80 percent sure” that Te’o participated and did so with publicity in mind. According to the Deadspin report, Te’o and Tuiasosopo have been in contact via Twitter, including exchanging several friendly messages last summer.
Te’o said in his statement:
“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. 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.”