There are several layers to the beyond-bizarre saga of Manti Te’o and the nonexistent girlfriend whose death begat the most inspirational sports story of 2012. Conclusions can’t be made yet about any of them, except this one: We now can understand why Notre Dame’s star linebacker didn’t show up for the national championship game against Alabama.
Oh, sure, there was a No. 5 on the field for the Fighting Irish, and he wore a navy blue jersey trimmed in gold, but that wasn’t the Heisman Trophy finalist who had come to resemble a one-man wrecking crew.
Te’o allowed Alabama to run at him, around him and over him. He went through the motions like a guy whose heart and mind were somewhere else. How could college football’s best defensive player fail to bring his “A” game into college football’s ultimate showcase?
Simple. Te’o was conflicted. Knowing what he knew – knowing the world soon would see him as either a hopelessly nave sap or a fallen hero revealed to be fraud – it’s a wonder he even made the trip to Miami.
So at least the mystery of Te’o’s listless performance against the Crimson Tide has cleared up. As for the rest of the deceit practiced on the World Wide Tangled Web, I’ve got no more insight about Manti’s Inferno than anybody else.
It’s difficult for me to believe Te’o participated in a hoax designed to evoke sympathy for his Heisman Trophy campaign. Perpetuating a lie about a loved
one losing a battle to leukemia at the age of 22? Only the most pathological of creeps would do that, and Te’o, from what I’ve read, is as virtuous off the field as he is dynamic on it.
But it’s also difficult for me to believe he was planning a future together with a young woman whose hand he had yet to hold. It’s difficult to believe he maintained a three-year romance limited to email exchanges and telephone conversations. It’s difficult to believe he stared at photographs of the stunning Lennay Marie Kekua and thought: Yep. That’s the next Mrs. Manti Te’o. Someday when I’m lonely, deep in love and there’s not a lot more to say on the phone, I’ll figure out a way to actually, like, meet her.
It’s possible Te’o began an innocent, long-distance courtship, and when he learned the girl of his dreams was a fabrication – gotcha, Manti, you’ve been punked! – the sheer embarrassment of falling in love with a cyberspace impostor forced him to conceal the truth.
That’s how Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick framed the school’s response to the news Deadspin.com broke Wednesday. Swarbrick, fighting back tears, described Te’o as the victim of a vicious prank.
“The single most trusting human being I’ve ever met will never be able to trust the same way again in his life,” Swarbrick said. “That’s an incredible tragedy.”
Overcoming tragedy was the prevailing theme of Te’o’s senior season. His beloved grandmother died on Sept. 11, around the time – reports vary – Te’o learned that Kekua also had died. (Lennay, poor thing, dealt with some tough luck in 2012. Before losing her life, the newly graduated Stanford student suffered injuries in a car accident that left her, as Sports Illustrated put it, “on the brink of death.”)
Besieged by grief, Te’o went to work on Michigan State the following day. He made 12 tackles – a quarterback sack among them – and recovered a fumble.
The funeral for Lennay, according to various news reports, was scheduled for Sept. 22 in Carson, Calif. Te’o made no plans to attend it because Lennay, consistent with her unconditional love, told Te’o to focus on the here and now of football. With a game against Michigan awaiting the Irish, there was a lot of here and now.
Te’o honored Lennay’s passing by making the Wolverines regret their passing, picking off two throws on a day he crossed the threshold from impact linebacker to Notre Dame legend.
“All she wanted was some white roses,” Te’o said of his dearly departed girlfriend after the victory. “So I sent her roses and two picks.”
If you’re looking for a loophole in Te’o’s story, maybe it’s there. In lieu of attending the funeral for the love of his life, he sent flowers and two picks? Really?
In any case, the resilience Te’o showed while dealing with the cruelties of real life vaulted him into the pantheon of such sainted Notre Dame greats as Knute Rockne and George Gipp.
Rockne’s locker-room speech during halftime of a 1928 showdown against Army, when he recalled a death-bed conversation with the late halfback, is college football’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s improbable Gipp’s last words to his coach were “some day, Rock, some time – when the going isn’t so easy, when the odds are against us – ask a Notre Dame team to win one for me: For the Gipper,” but that’s beside the point.
We bought it.
The life and death of the fictional Lennay Marie Kekua continues the tradition. Her last wish was for Manti Te’o to play lights out against Michigan.
We bought that, too.
It’s a tale of lies wrapped in lies and packaged in still more lies. But the photo of the beautiful girl who didn’t die at 22 is the whole truth.
There she is, Myth America.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com