Of course the most bizarre story in sports in the new year has to run through Southern California … more than once.
The website Deadspin blew the lid off Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's fake girlfriend Lennay Kekua, a dying college student-cum-grad who inspired his play in the school's near-championship season but who existed neither in life nor death.
She was said to have died after leukemia treatment at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton. Nope:
There's no obituary for her, no record of her death, and no record of her life as a student at Stanford University, where the two are said to have met after a game in 2009.
Their love played out during the latest college season as backstory for Te'o's close run for a Heisman Trophy.
After the Sept. 11 death of his grandmother (real) and the (fake) death of Kekua hours or days later, depending, Te'o was inspired to help lead the Fighting Irish to a 20-3 upset of Michigan State in a run-up to Notre Dame's loss in the BCS championship.
Although Te'o and even his father spoke of Kekua as a real 22-year-old (Te'o apparently told interviewers he stayed on the phone with her for hours after she had a string of bad news last year — a car accident and subsequent cancer diagnosis), she appears to exist only via some shifty Twitter accounts, according to Deadspin.
Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown issued a statement yesterday that claims Te'o is a victim of the hoax:
Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia. The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.
That doesn't explain how he claimed to have met her in person and talked to her on the phone for hours, but we'll see.
Deadspin, meanwhile, tracked down the Torrance woman whose photos were used to depict Kekua.
She says one of the photos was unique and sent only to one person, a high-school acquaintance named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a former starting quarterback at Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster whose father played at USC.
Although Te'o is from Hawaii, Deadspin found a source who said Tuiasosopo and Te'o are “family friends:”
Te'o and Tuiasosopo definitely know each other. In May 2012, Te'o was retweeting Tuiasosopo, who had mentioned going to Hawaii. Wrote Te'o, “sole”–“bro,” in Samoan–“u gotta come down.” In June, Te'o wished Tuiasosopo a happy birthday.
Some folks who know Tuiasosopo said he indeed created Kekua, in 2008, as a hoaxing device, and that things got out of hand as Te'o's winning season gained national attention. But another source believes with 80 percent certainty, Deadspin says, that T'eo was in on it.
Te'o issued this statement to ESPN:
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. 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.