It was one of the most inspirational sports stories of the year: the superstar college linebacker Manti Te’o, burdened by the death of his 22-year-old girlfriend, leads Notre Dame to football glory and an appearance in the BCS National Championship game.
But it was all a hoax. His girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never existed.
This Thursday, the Heisman Trophy-runner up will give his first on-camera interview since the hoax was revealed. Te’o is expected to discuss his relationship with “Kekua” and his knowledge of the hoax on Katie Couric’s syndicated TV talk show.
An investigation conducted by four Deadspin.com journalists and published last Wednesday revealed there was no record of Lennay Kekua’s death from leukemia, her enrollment in college, or even her birth.
“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,” Te’o said in a statement released Wednesday evening. “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.”
While newspaper stories, such as one published in October 2012 by the South Bend Tribune, noted that Te’o and Kekua had met in person, Te’o, a devout Mormon, now denies ever meeting his girlfriend or even seeing her on a video chat.
“I wasn’t faking. I wasn’t part of this,” Te’o told ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap in an exclusive interview. Te’o went on to admit that he lied to his parents and reporters about meeting “Kekua,” but only because he did not want people thinking he was “crazy” for never actually meeting his girlfriend.
The man publicly identified as the perpetrator of the hoax is Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a 22-year-old acquaintance of Te’o’s. According to Te’o, Tuiasosopo called him last week to apologize for the hoax, adding that two other people were also involved. Tuiasosopo’s family has hired legal counsel.
Perhaps the most bizarre part of the story is the level of detail and emotional manipulation put into the hoax. In his interview with ESPN, Te’o recounted how he and the woman he believed to be “Kekua” would have long phone conversations and even share Scripture passages with each other. When “Kekua” was supposedly recovering from a severe car accident, Te’o would be there to offer emotional support.
“I slept on the phone with her every night,” Te’o told ESPN. “I’d be on the phone. And she had complications from the accident, and she said the only thing that could help her sleep was if I was on the phone. So I would be on the phone, and I’d have the phone on the whole night.”
Te’o was in the Notre Dame locker room on Sept. 12 when he received a phone call telling him “Kekua” had died. That night Te’o would lead his team to an emotional, upset victory over Michigan State and the story of Te’o and Kekua would become a national talking point.