Notre Dame's All-American linebacker Manti Te'o has been the target of much derision during the course of the 2012 season. Some felt that the Heisman runner up benefitted from more talented teammates around him, and that for all his accolades and high praise, his aggregated statistics and some of his key moments weren't entirely the result of an other worldly skill set.
Back when Ohio State's Braxton Miller was omitted as a Heisman finalist (he'd ultimately place fifth in total votes received), we tried to sort through the mess and figure out not only how good of a player he really was, but who he really was. We set out with a thesis in mind, that perhaps the senior Te'o wasn't actually better than Ohio State's sophomore linebacker, Ryan Shazier. But after digging deep on it, our own Chris Kopech decided that Te'o's story may not actually be just about the numbers; there was evidently an incredible, resilient person there that helped tell the full tale.
We even put together an infographic comparing Shazier and Te'o to try and figure out if there was a clear cut/easier way to determine whether Te'o was all he was made out to be. Te'o would go on to have the sort of national championship game performance that's tailor made for amateur revisionist historians. He and the rest of his ND teammates were venerable non-factors the entire evening and he personally missed tackle after tackle. Some felt Te'o fell from being the probable 5th-10th overall player taken in this year's draft into a mid-to-late first rounder on the heels of Notre Dame's brutal 42-14 loss to Alabama. But now, for reasons that have little to do with his on the field accomplishments, we're pretty much guaranteed to spend now until the 2013 NFL Draft (and likely beyond), reassessing everything we know about Notre Dame's high praised senior, for reasons that have little if anything to do with football:
There was no Lennay Kekua. Lennay Kekua did not meet Manti Te'o after the Stanford game in 2009. Lennay Kekua did not attend Stanford. Lennay Kekua never visited Manti Te'o in Hawaii. Lennay Kekua was not in a car accident. Lennay Kekua did not talk to Manti Te'o every night on the telephone. She was not diagnosed with cancer, did not spend time in the hospital, did not engage in a lengthy battle with leukemia. She never had a bone marrow transplant. She was not released from the hospital on Sept. 10, nor did Brian Te'o congratulate her for this over the telephone. She did not insist that Manti Te'o play in the Michigan State or Michigan games, and did not request he send white flowers to her funeral. Her favorite color was not white. Her brother, Koa, did not inform Manti Te'o that she was dead. Koa did not exist. Her funeral did not take place in Carson, Calif., and her casket was not closed at 9 a.m. exactly. She was not laid to rest.
The girlfriend we all thought helped inspire Te'o to play against Michigan State just hours after her death appears to have been completely fabricated. It's tough to imagine a story this unbelievable in the college football world (though former high school offensive linemen Kevin Hart comes to mind). Now just try and imagine all of this if Te'o had actually *won* the Heisman.
Of course, this story is bound to have wide spread implications. Te'o's draft stock (and professional future) will take a huge hit (and you have to almost openly wonder if given his decline of a Senior Bowl invitation and the way he's gone into full on recluse mode since the embarrassing title game the want is really there with him). It will also almost unquestionably result in an unyielding onslaught on both Te'o the player and the person.
At the end of the day, this all probably boils down to what amounts to an incredibly insecure kid. Whatever the reasoning that went through his head when he decided to try and evidently carry out the hoax (in the information age no less), it's easy to forget this is just an almost 22 year old we're talking about. Te'o clearly has some serious personal baggage, and while he certainly won't get the benefit of the doubt (or anything even remotely close to it) on the macro level, a small part of me almost feels bad for him. The next several weeks (and months) will be a relentless bombardment of criticism, jokes, and derision. Some fair, and some absolutely not. But regardless of motivation, intent, or otherwise, it's all but guaranteed to test every
Notre Dame says they'll have a statement on the story "as quickly as they have it." Should be fascinating to see what they could possibly say in the wake of one of the wildest PR stories you could ever imagine.
And finally, hats off to friend of the site, Timothy Burke. It'd almost necessitate second guessing if the reporting wasn't so diligent. As an Ohio Bobcat, you have to imagine Brady Hoke's head is spinning thinking that his arch rivals could carry out such apparent journalistic due diligence.
UPDATE (5:21 p.m. EST) : Notre Dame's issued their statement on the situation, and it's every bit as unbelievable as every other part of this story:
On Dec. 26, 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.
It's tough to know what to believe, but again given all the stones-turned-over by Deadspin, it's hard to believe that's the long and short of it.
UPDATE (11:24 a.m. EST, 1/19/13) : Obviously there's been a girth of testimony to make its way out since this story first broke. While our collective initial instinct that Te'o was complicit in some way hasn't been entirely discredited, the simplest explanation (particularly in lieu of ESPN's Jeremy Schaap's multiple hour interview with Te'o) increasingly appears to be that Te'o was played, was embarrassed about it, and furthered the lie, not necessarily for personal gain, but in an effort to look less foolish. Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel probably put it most sensibly:
This jibes with the conclusion Notre Dame reached in early January, after the school hired private investigators and forensic computer experts who went through Te'o's computer, emails, social-media accounts, phone bills and other documents.
"Manti Te'o is the victim of this scam," Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Wednesday.
And at this point, while doubters, critics and those who are particularly troubled by the conduct of an emotive college kid they've never met will undoubtedly remain convinced to the contrary, it's the most believable scenario. No one has produced any evidence to suggest Te'o was in on it. None.
The person most capable of changing that is Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who Notre Dame, among others, has fingered as the perpetrator of the hoax and thus someone with direct knowledge of how it went down. Tuiasosopo has remained hidden and silent, though, as stories of past similar conduct have emerged.
Tuiasosopo did, according to ESPN, send direct messages to Te'o over Twitter on Wednesday. The messages acknowledged Tuiasosopo's role in running the scam, and he apologized to Te'o for it. Te'o allowed ESPN to read the messages. Te'o also claimed he spoke to Tuiasosopo on the phone Wednesday. If Tuiasosopo wants to dispute this or accuse Te'o directly, we're eager to hear it.
So until someone comes up with something else, this is where the case stands. Te'o didn't start it.
While some of the jump-to-conclusion critiques of Te'o's naiveté out there are likely not completely fair, we can probably all safely conclude that this is a chapter he probably personally wishes he could've done without.
Either way, here's hoping we never have to talk about something like this (or this now increasingly fatigued story) ever again.