by Daniel Luzer
Quarterbacks might “get all the good-looking women” but some linebackers, apparently, have to make them up.
The biggest college football story of the 2012-13 season turns out not to be about the University of Alabama’s A. J. McCarron and how his girlfriend demonstrates that quarterbacks get all beautiful women. A far more interesting story centers on another football girlfriend. Or, well, “girlfriend.”
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s cancer-victim girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, it’s now clear, never existed. But why did someone create her?
The Lennay Kekua story, repeated by sports journalists everywhere, was pretty awesome. Te’o was a star high school football player. And one day in November both his grandmother and Kekua died. Overcoming tragedy, Te’o helped the Fighting Irish in a 20-3 victory over Michigan State. Pretty inspiring.
But according to an investigation by Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey at Deadspin, the most inspiring part of this tale is bullshit. As they write:
Manti Te’o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis. But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper.
Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. The Stanford registrar’s office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.
How did this happen? Well, according to Notre Dame, its linebacker (above) was the victim of a trick. According to a press release the school issued yesterday:
Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te’o and his parents that 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.
Well, perhaps. But if Te’o was the victim of a hoax, it was an incredibly elaborate, and essentially pointless one. As Burke and Jack Dickey write:
“Te’o and Kekua meet after Stanford’s 45-38 victory over Notre Dame in Palo Alto, according to the South Bend Tribune.”
Between 2010 and 2011 “Te’o and Kekua are friends. ‘She was gifted in music, multi-lingual, had dreams grounded in reality and the talent to catch up to them’ (South Bend Tribune). ‘They started out as just friends,’ Te’o’s father, Brian, told the Tribune in October 2012. ‘Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there.’”
In early 2012 the two became a couple and “talk on the phone nightly, according to ESPN.”
At some point in 2012 “Kekua has a car accident somewhere in California that leaves her “on the brink of death” (Sports Illustrated) Eight months before she died of cancer, in September, reports ESPN. “About the time Kekua and Manti became a couple,” reports the South Bend Tribune.”
In June last year “As Kekua recovers from her injuries, doctors discover she has leukemia. She has a bone-marrow transplant. (‘That was just in June,’ Brian Te’o told the South Bend Tribune in October of 2012. ‘I remember Manti telling me later she was going to have a bone marrow transplant and, sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. From all I knew, she was doing really, really well.’)”
And then in September last year, someone apparently decided it was time to kill Kekua off and “Te’o’s girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died Sept. 11 of complications from leukemia,” according to the South Bend Tribune.
Kekua was made up. But who made her up? T If Te’o was telling the truth, and Notre Dame was right it was a hoax, it involved someone (apparently) getting to know Te’o over the internet, and subsequently talking to him nightly and going to out visit him at his parents’ house.
It’s also possible, and frankly more likely, Te’o made up the girlfriend himself. It’s pretty hard to talk to someone nightly and have her come visit you if she’s just some amateur actor. It’s pretty easy to say those things happen if no one checks up.
In part, however, the story appears to have been perpetuated, and embellished by the media, because it was, after all, heartwarming. As Michael Calderone put it in the Huffington Post, “Te’o’s story was the type sportswriters — or really, journalists in general — flock toward. Here was a talented young man, who in the face of deep personal loss, triumphed on the field.”
Over the past few years, ESPN, Fox Sports, the Boston Globe, the New York Post, the Associated Press, and CBS all reported the girlfriend-car-accident-cancer-death story. Calderone: “It’s understandable that journalists may not have double-checked Te’o’s account of how, say, he supposedly met Kekau after a football game. But it’s amazing that news outlets were so quick to cover a woman’s death without any verification.”
Yes, well football victories are a dime a dozen; football victories in the face of the cancer death of loved ones are pretty rare and interesting stories. Tune in for more details! The human-interest story of the year!
Now we should try, as much as possible, try to be sympathetic here. The football player in question either made up a girlfriend or was the victim of a baroque con undertaken for no reason. Either way this speaks to pretty severe insecurities or gullibility, but this is not like a normal scandal.
Unlike, say, the Lace Armstrong con—in which an athlete engaged in complicated deception in order to win races—there’s no valid strategic reason to make up a girlfriend. People who do so (beyond the age of, say, 14) have, to put it in the most general terms, some issues to work out.
At any rate, though, Notre Dame and journalists had little reason to try and uncover the true story here. Te’o was, according to the Deadspin piece, a very real candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Many colleges now approach the Heisman as essentially a marketing campaign, complete with heart-warming details and slick superman myths.
Te’o is just as good a football player as he ever was. Why did the dead girlfriend story line matter so much?