SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Not once but twice after discovering his supposed 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 on 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.
Gregg Doyel, national columnist for CBSSports.com, was 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 best feel-good story of the year.
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.
Notre Dame said Te’o found out that Kekua was not a real person through a phone call he received on Dec. 6. He told Notre Dame coaches about the situation on Dec. 26.
The AP’s media review turned up two instances during that gap when Te’o mentioned Kekua in public.
He was in New York for the Heisman presentation on Dec. 8 and, during an interview that ran on 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 story that ran in the Daily Press of Newport News, Va., on Dec. 11, Te’o recounted why he played a few days after he found out Kekua died in September.
“She made me promise, when it happened, that I would stay and play,” he said.