Just when we thought we were done thinking about the Fighting Irish, linebacker and team honcho Manti Te’o managed to storm his way back into our conversations, news feeds, and inboxes. The once-Heisman hopeful has taken a dive, riding one of college football’s most heartbreaking and inspirational stories straight into a brick wall.
Deadspin writers Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey broke a story Wednesday purporting that Te’o’s late girlfriend Lennay Kekua never existed, kicking up a cloud of confusion and suspicion now hovering over sports pundits, news orgs, fans, and Te’o's family—all of which had perpetuated stories about Te’o and Kekua’s relationship. Sports Illustrated was first to report the details that pushed Te’o and Kekua into the spotlight: How, in the span of six hours on September 11 Te’o learned of his grandmother’s passing, and then of Kekua’s. It was reported both women died of some form of cancer (his grandmother did). It was a heartbreaking narrative, one that would turn Te’o into a symbol of strength-in-adversity for football fans around the world and spark a campaign for him to win the Heisman trophy. People said he would be remembered in Indiana for his leadership and inspirational endeavors. Now he’s an object of ridicule, and his run as a leader is done.
A number of publications and outlets have tried to piece together what Te’o knew and didn’t know about his girlfriend’s nonexistence, and surely the story will continue to unfold in the coming days and weeks. The way I see it, though, Te’o is either a compulsive liar who successfully duped the media, his family, his friends, and his fans for fame; or, he’s the very gullible victim of a cruel prank that lasted longer than it reasonably should have.
Either way the ordeal is a nightmare. Imagine the NFL locker room he’ll be joining. Think of the taunts, trauma, and torture to come. Pre-NFL Draft interviews are coming up, and every team is sure to bring this up. It’s heavy, embarrassing baggage, and Te’o will have to be honest—whatever that means. I hope for his legacy and for the future of his career, something comes to surface that clarifies for Te’o’s fans how he could have been so foolish, deceitful, or both so we can all move on. I want to remember and hear about the Golden Domer who led Notre Dame to a historic season and changed the face of a floundering football squad. But right now that wonderful legacy and triumph has turned into one big April Fool’s joke, not just for Te’o (if that’s what you believe), but one that pulled the wool over the eyes of a sympathetic public, too.