SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Not once but twice after he supposedly discovered his online girlfriend never existed, Notre Dame All-America linebacker Manti Te’o perpetuated the story of 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 Dec. 6 that it was all a hoax, that not only wasn’t she dead, she wasn’t real.
A day after Te’o’s playing-through-heartache story was exposed as a bizarre lie, Te’o and Notre Dame faced questions about whether he was duped, as he claimed, or whether he and the university misled the public, perhaps to improve his chances of winning the Heisman.
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 he 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 biggest feel-good story of the year.
Relying on information provided by Te’o’s family members, the South Bend Tribune reported in October that Te’o and Kekua first met, in person, in 2009, and that the two had also gotten together in Hawaii, where Te’o grew up.
Sports Illustrated posted a previously unpublished transcript of a one-on-one interview with Te’o from Sept. 23. In it, he goes into great detail about his relationship with Kekua and her physical ailments. He also mentioned meeting her for the first time after a game in California.
“We met just, ummmm, just she knew my cousin. And kind of saw me there so. Just kind of regular,” he told SI.
Notre Dame said Te’o found out that Kekua was not a real person through a phone call he received at an awards ceremony in Orlando, Fla., 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 the football star mentioned Kekua in public.
Te’o was in New York for the Heisman presentation on Dec. 8 and, during an interview before the ceremony that ran on the 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 column that first ran in The Los Angeles Times, on Dec. 10, Te’o recounted why he played a few days after he found out Kekua died in September, and the day she was supposedly buried.
“She made me promise, when it happened, that I would stay and play,” he said on Dec. 9 while attending a ceremony in Newport Beach, Calif., for the Lott Impact Awards.
On Wednesday, when Deadspin.com broke the story, Swarbrick said Notre Dame did not go public with its findings sooner because it expected the Te’o family to come forward first.