Manti Te’o is a star football player at Notre Dame, but I had never heard of him before yesterday. Now, he’s at the center of what I’m pretty sure will be the strangest, most fascinating story I read all year. Last fall, at the height of football season, Te’o spoke often about Lennay Kekua, his beloved girlfriend who had been diagnosed with leukemia, and then died; her last words to Te’o, he said, were “I love you.” Yesterday, Deadspin revealed that Lennay Kekua doesn’t exist. The whole thing was a hoax. But was Manti Te’o victim or perpetrator? Is it possible he invented a dead girlfriend in an attempt to secure the Heisman trophy?
First, if you haven’t read the full Deadspin story, do check it out — or at least bookmark it. It’s incredible. The basics: College football player Manti Te’o claimed to have met beautiful Stanford student Lennay Kekua at a football game, and begin dating her in 2012. Then, he said, she was in a terrible car accident. In the aftermath of the accident, doctors discovered she had leukemia. She got a bone marrow transplant, but in September, Te’o, said, she died — at almost exactly the same time his grandmother died. Poor Te’o!
The story of the football player overcoming so many emotional odds to triumph on the field was widely reported in the press. Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Fox, countless newspapers, radio, the works. But as Deadspin revealed yesterday, Lennay Kekua didn’t exist. There’s no record of her life, or death, at Stanford or anywhere else. Instead, a friend of Te’o’s seems to have concocted her online existence.
There are are a LOT of unanswered questions so far, but the big one is whether Te’o was a victim of a hoax, or whether he was in on the story the whole time. Te’o was in the running for a prestigious Heisman Trophy, an award that goes to the “most outstanding player in collegiate football.” The award is a huge boost to a football player’s career, and players these days often “campaign” for it. Players conduct carefully choreographed interviews meant to show their human side, and make them a a more appealing choice.
As CNN points out, Te’o heartbreaking story of losing his grandmother and his girlfriend made for a great story during the football season. It didn’t hurt that he had an incredible season on the field, too. “I can honor them by the way I played,” he said after one blowout victory. “It was for them, for my girl and my grandma, and for all my loved ones who have passed on.”
When the story of the dead girlfriend unraveled yesterday, one of the most popular theories going around was that Te’o made the story up to advance his career. Te’o didn’t win the Heisman in December, though he was runner-up. One friend of the main hoax perpetrator told Deadspin he was “80 percent sure” that Te’o was an accomplice, and that “the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua’s death with publicity in mind.”
If so, that means Manti Te’o spun a season-long story about a dying girlfriend to boost his football career, which is about as low as it gets in terms of cutthroat ambition. “I hope this was not for the Heisman,” an NFL star who’s a former Heisman winner told CNN. “I can’t believe that it could be. But if it turns out that this was done for recognition and to get publicity for the Heisman, that would be despicable, deplorable.”