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An Oral History of the Manti Te'o Catfish Story: Part 1

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Two years ago this week the Notre Dame community was hit by one of the strangest sports sagas in modern times.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The 2012 football season saw the stars align as the Fighting Irish climbed to No. 1 in the country following a 12-0 regular season record. All of those good vibes vanished into the new calendar year when Notre Dame was soundly defeated in the BCS National Championship game by the Alabama Crimson Tide. Only 9 days after that crushing loss a story hit the internet that was so shocking that it almost couldn't be believed.

CLICK HERE FOR A FULL TIMELINE OF THE EVENTS


Our Discussion Panel

arnold1
Keith Arnold- NBC Sports' Inside the Irish manager, Bleacher Report lead writer

walters1
John Walters- Newsweek Senior Sports Writer

ritter1
Ryan Ritter- Her Loyal Sons Editor-in-Chief

frank1
Frank Vitovitch- UHND Manager

fish
Fishoutofwater- One Foot Down writer

young2
Youngcrumudgeon- One Foot Down writer

ndroyals2
NDRoyalsfan- One Foot Down writer


On the evening of September 8, 2012 nothing seemed out of the ordinary for Notre Dame. The football team had just completed a last-second win over Purdue a week after taking down Navy across the Atlantic Ocean in Dublin. Twenty-one year-old linebacker Manti Te'o had a nice start to his senior season intercepting his first career pass against Navy and notching 10 tackles in a game for the 18th time of his career against Purdue.

At this point very few people outside of Manti's immediate family were aware of the drama a woman named Lennay Kekua had brought into his life. The two had messaged each other infrequently going back to 2009. Their relationship intensified in 2011 when Kekua told Te'o that her father died. In the spring of 2012 she was in a car accident and later slipped into a coma. After awaking from the coma and while Te'o was taking summer classes with his Irish teammates Kekua called with even worse news. The doctors said she had leukemia.

These are the things this person was telling Te'o as they spoke every day over the phone for several months. Most of the world knew Manti Te'o simply as the captain and Hawaiian linebacker for Notre Dame. Soon this confusing relationship full of deceit would enter the limelight in an even more tragic fashion. Our panel looks back to those early 2012 season days.

fish

Fishoutofwater: Before Lennay Kekua and her unraveling, Manti Te'o was in some sense the clichéd favored football son: an exceptional talent, an evident and valued leader on an exciting and charismatic team, and by all accounts, a good and beloved person whose virtues extended beyond the field of play, the locker room, and the classroom. He seemed to strike us as, above all things, loyal - faithful to his religious commitments, faithful to his family, faithful to his team and school - as a young man whose way of being in the world witnessed against the consuming self-interest, materialism, and greed that mar so many of the decisions made in the world generally and in athletics particularly. After he came back for his senior season in 2012, we all wanted the storybook ending for Te'o at Notre Dame, replete with athletic glory and personal contentment. The athletic glory part seemed to come readily to the entire team that season.

A photo one of our writers took at a late December team practice seemed to exemplify Te'o's place at Notre Dame before the storm broke - Father Hesburgh blesses the Mormon football player, head bowed over his shoulder pads.

ritter1 Ryan Ritter: I knew that both Te'o and the 2012 Irish squad were good. A Heisman contender and 12-0 weren't even remotely in my mind at the time. I thought 10 wins and a BCS Bowl would be the ceiling for the season.

ndroyals2NDRoyalsfan: 2012 was the fall of my senior year, and up to that point, ND football had given me fairly low expectations. I knew Te'o was a special player and was probably the best LB in the country, but the team as a whole was coming off a frustrating season in 2011. After having my heart ripped out against USF and in the Big House, I was just hoping to make a BCS bowl, and thought the team would have to overachieve to even do that. The Purdue game also featured a large number of people booing Tommy Rees as he came on to "close" the game, so despite being 2-0 there was still a lot of negativity surrounding the team.

walters1John Walters: You'll recall that things were not looking up as the Irish traveled to Dublin. Tommy Rees was serving a 1-game suspension as was, I seem to recall, Cierre Wood. After two games the feeling for me was mild surprise and optimism. I loved what I was seeing out of youngsters such as Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix.

frank1

Frank Vitovitch: I went into the 2012 season very much thinking that Notre Dame was still a year away given they were starting a redshirt freshman quarterback and would be relying on some young players like Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix making some big strides.  Early on those feelings were validated with the close win over Purdue.  Seeing Brian Kelly start his game of musical quarterbacks against the Boilermakers only further made me feel that the Irish were on borrowed time early in the season.

With regards to Te'o, I remember coming into the season thinking that he had yet to really live up to the 5-star hype.  He had been a multi-year starter and piled up a lot of tackles to that point, but I couldn't get past the lack of big plays - sacks, turnovers, etc.

young2Youngcrumudgeon: I was impressed by the Navy win, to be sure. I was doing stats in the press box for WVFI for the Purdue game and I wasn't thrilled about what I saw. I thought Te'o was good but expected neither him nor the team to produce the year they did. At that point I assumed Oklahoma and Stanford would roll all over us.

arnold1Keith Arnold: The biggest thing that sticks out to me about early 2012 was the fact that Tommy Rees got booed coming into the game as he was tasked with leading the team down the field for the win. Sure, you're used to the very vocal minority of grumbling, hardcore internet fans torching the kid, but the fact that he was getting booed inside Notre Dame Stadium? That's a pretty telling data point of just how rankled everybody was after two straight eight-win seasons.

It was hard to get too excited about the blowout victory over Navy (though in retrospect, maybe it shouldn't have been), and most were grumbling about the struggles the pass defense had against the Midshipmen.

But up until that point, I expected a very nice senior season from Te'o - a fringe All-American performance, not the historic trophy haul that came that December. I was just happy that Notre Dame got a high-profile defensive recruit to turn into a high-profile defensive performer.


On September 15, 2012 the public first became aware of the tragedy that has befallen Manti Te'o. During Notre Dame's 20-3 win over then ranked No. 10 Michigan State we learn that Manti's grandmother and girlfriend passed away in back-to-back days that preceding Tuesday and Wednesday.

young2 I did not think much of it at the time. I remember it being mentioned multiple times during the Michigan State game, and I felt for him at the time.

arnold1 Only in retrospect does it all feel a little too perfect. We probably should've had an idea that this wasn't a traditional relationship when Brent Musburger wasn't calling the girl his girlfriend, but rather his friend. He gets that info from the team.

But the big story leaving that game wasn't necessarily Te'o's performance, but the fact that Notre Dame finally got that "Top 10 win," another one of those preassigned failings that Notre Dame fans like to get so worked up about.

As for Te'o's girlfriend, outside of a few very vocal/openly obvious girlfriend-boyfriend relationships on Twitter, it's hard to say you really "know" somebody has a girlfriend, but the star middle linebacker on Notre Dame's football team? I kind of assumed he'd have one.

ndroyals2 I had no suspicions of anything. I didn't know whether or not Te'o was dating anyone, but that wasn't really unusual. I didn't know the relationship status of 95% of the football team, and didn't really care to know.

walters1 I'd be lying if I said I had suspicion at this point. I had stopped covering Notre Dame with a boots on the ground presence in 2010--I had been there, spending autumns in South Bend, from 2006-2010. Not being there any longer, I simply assumed it was true because if it wasn't obviously someone there would have sussed that out by then. But I didn't give it much thought.

fish I never felt suspicious of the near-simultaneous deaths of Te'o's grandmother and girlfriend, though it certainly struck me as remarkable and very unusually tragic. I hadn't known that Te'o had a girlfriend, of course, but had assumed he did and was not surprised that she was both long term and long distance - he seemed suited to that type of relationship. The presence of those tragedies during the Michigan State game played little more than an ordinary part of the human interest narrative laid over the play on field by the television commentators. The victory shined just a bit brighter than it would have otherwise knowing that it could be some small personal comfort to Te'o.

frank1

I was not aware that Te'o had a girlfriend prior to the news during the Michigan State game, but that didn't surprise me much because Te'o was never really one of those players who sought media attention or publicized his life over social media.  When the news broke I remember feeling awful for him, but there wasn't any suspicion whatsoever on me end at time.

ritter1 Zero suspicion. Zero. I certainly wasn't very aware that Te'o had a girlfriend, but then again, I probably couldn't tell you who on the 2012 roster did or didn't and, honestly, if Lennay hadn't of "died" I doubt that I ever hear about the relationship.


The following week there was a campus outpouring of support for Te'o as Notre Dame defeated Michigan and moved to 4-0 for the first time in a decade on the same night Lennay was laid to rest.. Manti would intercept two passes in one of the most memorable team defensive performances in modern Irish history.

fish

What I recall most clearly from the Michigan game were the leis worn by so many in the crowd and on campus that day - many Michigan fans donned them, too, in honor of Te'o's personal suffering and his contribution to the team. I remember the push in the week before the game to get all of the game attendees to wear leis for Te'o, and I helped to promote it through One Foot Down's Twitter feed, which I was managing. I wasn't going to buy and wear a lei myself, but I noticed a dozen leis made of bright green cloth shamrocks hanging in the year-round St. Patrick's day section of the local South Bend CVS drugstore - I purchased two and put a photo of one up on Twitter, then wore it to campus on game day. His suffering became a strange source of palpable unity and kindness that day. The image of leis wreathing the statue of Lou Holtz next to the stadium was a poignant one that night.

ritter1

I was at the Michigan game and even helped spread the word about wearing leis for Manti to show support for one of the Notre Dame family. It just felt like one of those "ND Things" when it was all said and done. Just another page in the ever growing lore of Notre Dame football. It just felt like the ND Family came together to do what they would for anybody else. No one was thinking that Manti was in the Heisman race at the time. Manti's story was just this nice bonus side story line that made you smile. You felt good for the kid and you were happy things were going the way they were in the face of what everyone felt like was legitimate tragedy.

frank1

Seeing the Notre Dame students wearing the leis was a great scene and they added to an electric atmosphere in Notre Dame Stadium that night, but it didn't feel overwhelming.  Honestly, it started to feel a bit like this was a Notre Dame type moment that we've all been waiting to feel for a while - one of those stories that only happens at Notre Dame and adds to the lore that is Notre Dame football.

walters1

I thought of it as nothing more than a subplot. In retrospect, like any great con job --I just watched 'The Sting' last night-- I wonder how I could have been so naive. But at the time I didn't think much of the fact that I hadn't seen a photo of her or, more importantly, of them...

arnold1

I might have been the only person to do it, but my gut reaction to the news that students and locals were planning to wear leis to the Michigan game in support of Te'o was to really, really hate the idea. I just thought it was so cheesy and stupid. I tweeted as much, and I think it's still the tweet I most regret sending. Pretty much universal disagreement.

And then I saw that Saturday and felt even more completely wrong. It was a wonderful moment. You'd have been crazy not to have felt like the perfect storm was brewing. That Te'o could play through these distractions - practically powered by his grief - was pretty inspirational. And that he'd conquer the demon known as Denard Robinson in such an emphatic way... Say what you want about the circus after it broke, but you can't take that Saturday away from the defense. It was such an impressive performance.

manti4

young2

To be perfectly honest, I was more focused on the beating Denard Robinson took at the hands of the Notre Dame defense. In my mind, I was more thrilled that they had bottled him up and made him look like a fool, and in my senior year, we had finally beat Michigan. The leis were a nice show of support, but they didn't make as much of an impression on me while I was standing in the Stadium as they did when I saw the replays later. It certainly created a powerful scene.

ndroyals2

The Irish were 4-0 going into the bye with a winnable game coming against Miami at Soldier Field. I hadn't yet started to think about going undefeated. I expected a loss in Norman and probably at Southern Cal, but thought we had a great chance of going 11-1 or 10-2 and going to a BCS bowl. Around campus, there was definitely more optimism than in recent years, but 4-0 was very much uncharted territory for all of the student body.


Fast forward to mid-January 2013 (we'll double back to several events in December in parts two and three) following Notre Dame's loss to Alabama in the National Championship Game. On January 16th the website Deadspin dropped a bombshell on the world with a sensational story about the details surrounding the existence of Manti Te'o's girlfriend. This ushered in perhaps the strangest day in Notre Dame football history.

ritter1

I was at work and I saw the story promoted in both Deadspin's and Timothy Burke's Twitter accounts. My first exact thought: "What the hell is this (redacted)" But then I read the story. I knew it wasn't made up. There was too much research done and it all added up. Well, perhaps it's more accurate to say about 80% of the story added up...

frank1

I was actually sitting in the Indianapolis airport eating dinner with a co-worker after a business trip in Indy for a few days when I first saw the news pop up on Twitter.  After seeing my timeline blown up with stories about it I tracked down the Deadpsin article and started reading.  Before I was finished a few of my Notre Dame friends texted me.  At first I really had no idea what to think of it because the idea that something like that was orchestrated by Manti just seemed totally unfathomable to me. So I'd say confusion was a good way to describe how I felt.  Luckily for me that day I got randomly upgraded to first class--one of the very few times I've ever been and the free drinks took over my attention.

arnold1

I spent a lot of time on the phone. A lot of time texting. I remember I had to pull over before I hit a deadspot on Vista del Mar because I had finally connected to someone inside the program and I wasn't about to lose them because Verizon can't figure out how to put a tower in the right place.

That night, I spent like three hours digging into the cesspool that was Twitter, trying to find some of these people that could've known or who were included in the Deadspin story. What made it even weirder is that they lived so close by. Some of this stuff was happening in Torrance, California. I go to the mall there. It's like five miles from me.

It felt like some weird movie, this blend of Hawaiian/Polynesian subculture, and then just seeing all the joy people were taking in this story. It was just all very bizarre.

walters1

A few things on this. Notre Dame, in late October, had asked me to do a BIG piece on Manti for, I believe, the purposes of placing it on UND.com. Heisler (Senior Associate Athletic Director John Heisler) was already expecting that the Irish might want more material for a Heisman push. I asked to speak to Manti directly but was told that his time was too over-scheduled already and that this would not happen. I recall doing research and finding it strange that I could not unearth any stories about Kekua's funeral or even about her being a Stanford student. And now, looking back, I feel incredibly foolish that I did not see the obvious signs. As an aside, "The Usual Suspects" is on TV tonight. Hello????

So, yeah, it was right there in front of me in early November and I missed it. If I'm being honest I'd say that the fact that Te'o is from Hawaii and that the principal characters in this story are Polynesian may have led me to think that they just weren't as accessible on Google, in stories, etc. But I have no one else to blame.

Two more things: The SI story. Pete Thamel attends a Saturday night game, gets an audience with Manti on Sunday and writes it Sunday night. Having worked at SI, I know that they close on Monday night and that means that the fact-checker here gets the story Monday morning and is being pushed all day by editors to have it fact-checked. There's lip service to accuracy from above, but all they really care about is swiftness. One, they want to go home after a long Sunday. Two, they look bad if one story holds up the closing of the mag.

My guess is the fact-checker may have made an effort to contact Stanford and was not able to confirm her existence. But he was not able to confirm the absence of her existence, either.

Second: I got an email from a guy at Deadspin on a Saturday morning in early January. I want to say Tim Burke. He asked me a few obtuse questions about Manti. I could tell he was fishing for something but I did not know what.

SI10112

fish

I first saw the Deadspin story retweeted into the One Foot Down Twitter feed when it broke. I was home and so had time to read it right then. My first concerns were as a contributor to OFD - "What do we do about this? What do we link/post/write? How do we engage with this on the website and on Twitter?" On our writers' email feed, the first reaction was intense shock, well-founded hope that Deadspin had gotten something wrong, and then of course discussion of what to put up about the story in its immediate wake.

Within two hours, with our site managers temporarily unavailable to post the story, I had a short post up linking the full Deadspin story and both linking and excerpting statements from Notre Dame and Te'o on what seemed to suddenly be the most volcanic and chaotic story in recent college sports history - one that would fully occupy our writing staff and our fan base, as well as the national media, for the next two weeks. Helping to manage the flow of information to our readers at One Foot Down and through our site's Twitter feed was a good challenge and, it seemed at the time, an important one in using what little voice we had to help shed light on the full story as it emerged.

ndroyals2

I was sitting in my living room off campus on Ponader Drive watching TV with my roommates. I had my laptop open and opened twitter and saw every college football writer I follow talking about the Te'o Deadspin story. I quickly read it with my roommates, and sent the link to some other friends. I don't remember a ton about the rest of the evening, but I distinctly remember buying a case of PBR and drinking a lot of it that night while watching the Swarbrick press conference.

young2

I was sitting on my bed in my 4th floor single of Zahm, working on a Anthropology paper I think, when I heard a commotion outside in the hall. Guys were running back and forth, their talk alternating between "did you see it?" and "I can't believe this stuff." I stuck my head into the hall and shouted at a neighbor down the hall to fill me in. "Dude, check out Deadspin." "Why?" "Remember Te'o's girlfriend? She was fake."

I ducked back into my room and brought up Deadspin and read the story in its entirety. The whole experience was surreal. I could not believe what I was reading. I had started texting some buddies who lived in Irish Row to check the whole thing out. I headed over there immediately to discuss the situation. We talked it over and then watched the Swarbrick press conference. The prevailing sentiment was: "this is surreal, this is too weird."


Literally within minutes of the story being released by Deadspin there were dozens of theories floating around about what had actually happened between Manti Te'o and this person known as Lennay Kekua. However, one term that popped up immediately and would take center stage was Te'o being the victim of a 'catfish' scheme.

ndroyals2

I didn't know it had a specific name, but I'd heard of people being duped on the internet in a similar fashion.

fish

I had never heard the term, though I knew that all imaginable cruelty was perpetrated by seemingly ordinarily people through the anonymity of the internet, including all kinds of false relationships.

arnold1

I had seen the movie. But connecting that to an All-American football player? Just bizarre.

young2

The first response everyone had if you asked was: "well it's a show on MTV or something..."

ritter1

The term "catfish" itself was just entering my vocabulary as the MTV show by the same name was just getting started up. Being an avid gamer that loves MMORPGs, I would hear of these stories all the time. People would pose as women in order to get online currency and gear as gifts for being in an online relationship. Eventually, those relationships would end either with a reveal of the lie or even with a "relative" contacting the catfished victim and saying that their online significant other was now dead or terminally ill.

However, considering that communication in such games can easily be limited to just text chat, this didn't seem out of the ordinary. Even knowing that catfishing existed, I would have never thought it would bleed into Notre Dame football. Not because I thought none of them could get suckered in, but more because trying to pull off a scam on a ND player would eventually become a huge national story, making such a con almost impossible to pull off in my mind.

walters1

I hadn't seen the movie, but I did know about it. And in a sense I myself was catfished as someone got a hold of my email password and began writing friends about me. But that's an entirely different rabbit hole to go down...

frank1

I had heard about the Catfish movie and knew it was some sort of viral sensation but didn't know what exactly it was.


Coming up in part 2 of 3...

*Dealing with skeptical feelings over Deadspin's initial story.

*Wading through the bizarre aftermath in the media.

*Looking back at the responses from Te'o and Notre Dame.