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The Manti Te'o Conundrum

How one of 2012's most inspiring stories became 2013's most bizarre.


Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty

First off, if you haven't read Deadspin.com's story about Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, his dead girlfriend, and how—wait a second...there was no dead girlfriend?!?—read it now. It's crazy, and it's confusing, and it's an utterly compelling read. Here's what we thought we knew about Te'o and his girlfriend:

On September 11 (or thereabouts) Notre Dame senior linebacker lost his beloved grandmother and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, within 24 hours of each other. Both passed away after long illnesses. That weekend, Te'o led the Irish to an upset 20-3 victory over Michigan St. After the game, Te'o told reporters "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."

Notre Dame goes undefeated, finishing the regular season ranked 1st, while Te'o wins just about every award possible for a defensive player, and finishes second in Heisman Trophy voting. In the national championship game against Alabama, Te'o plays poorly, and the Irish lose.

All throughout the season, numerous news outlets spoke about how the deaths of his loved ones inspired Te'o's outstanding play.

Here's what we think we know now:

-There was no girlfriend. Or if there was, Te'o never actually met her in person: it was someone he met online, and the relationship played out over twitter, email, and phone.
-Lennay Kekua, if she existed, didn't die of leukemia in September.
-Manti Te'o was likely the victim of a "Catfish"-style hoax, where someone set him up, pretending to be Kekua.
-Or….Te'o cooked up the hoax himself, with the help of friend/maybe-relative Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.
-Okay, we really don't know what the fuck happened.

After the bombshell story was published yesterday, Notre Dame released a statement saying the Te'o was 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.” In a press conference, Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick referred to the Catfish parallels, saying "It is a scam ... that follows the exact arc of this. It's perpetrated with shocking frequency, and it's just [like] this one: an initial casual engagement, a developing relationship online, a subsequent trauma—traffic accident, illness—and then, a death. Again, as hard as it is for me to get my arms around this, there's apparently some sport in doing this, and being able to do it successfully."

According to Swarbrick, Te'o received a phone call on December 6 from a number that Kekua had used, the voice informing him that she wasn't dead. Three weeks later, Te'o told his coaches, and Notre Dame launched their own investigation, which revealed the hoax. Te'o released his own statement yesterday, saying "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."

So, who knows? According to one source in the Deadspin story, they were "80% sure" Te'o was in on the scam. He obviously denies this. Anyway, go read the story in all its weird, convoluted glory, and come to your own conclusions. It's worth it.

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