EAST LANSING, Mich. – I really wanted to cast my first-place Heisman Trophy vote this season for Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o.
I closely followed Te’o after watching him shut down Michigan State, 20-3, in a game that earned both the Fighting Irish and Te’o national acclaim that September night.
Despite the drubbing he put on Michigan State, the fans in Spartan Stadium showered him with love because they had heard the story – that both his grandmother and, supposedly, his girlfriend had died during the week leading up to the game.
Afterward, Te’o said: “It was hard. I lost a woman who I truly love, but I have a family around me and my football family. At the end of the day, families are forever, and I will see them again someday.”
Well, at least he might get to see his maternal grandmother, Annette Santiago, on the other side. The girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, according to a Deadspin.com investigation, doesn’t exist.
Now we’re forced to question the legacy of the player who led Notre Dame to the national championship game and became a campus hero for loving the Irish experience. He stayed for his senior year rather than jumping to the NFL and stood for values that often feel lost these days.
On Wednesday, it was Te’o who seemed lost.
Deadspin reported that there are official death records for Santiago, but in researching Kekua, the publication could find no evidence of her death, the serious car accident Te’o said she was involved in or even her birth. Photographs used for Twitter and Instagram accounts attributed to Kekua were confirmed to be of someone else.
In a statement released Wednesday, Te’o said:
“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.
“It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother’s death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life.
“I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been.
“In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was.
“Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I’m looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft.”
Is Te’o, who’s expected to go high in the first round of the draft, the victim of an elaborate hoax? Or does he have a highly active imagination?
Time will sort that out. For now, we’re left to wonder what else might not be true about Te’o.
Was this Mormon from Laie, Hawaii, who said he chose a Catholic college based on a revelation from God, making that up, too? I hope not.
Notre Dame reacted to the story with the following statement from spokesman Dennis Brown:
“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.”
But why would anyone set up Te’o this way? And why would Notre Dame keep this under wraps until the school’s hero and the school itself were made to look like frauds?
I’m sure that Irish coach Brian Kelly didn’t want it to be a distraction for the national championship game against Alabama; however, that game was played and lost nine days before the Deadspin report came out.
Why, in the name of Touchdown Jesus, didn’t Notre Dame come clean on this strange story?
Something Te’o said about not going to funeral services for Kekua after beating Michigan in the next game certainly didn’t ring true.
“You know, I really wanted to see her,” Te’o said at the time. “I really wanted to see her, but I knew that she made me promise. You know, one day she made me promise that, she said, ‘Babe, if anything happens to me, you promise that you’ll still stay over there and that you’ll play and that you’ll honor me through the way you play, and know that I would rather have you there.’ And just make sure that all she wanted was some white roses. White is her favorite color.
“So she just wanted some white roses, and that’s all she asked for. So I sent her roses and sent her two picks (interceptions) along with that, so that was good.”
If that was the love of my life, I would have skipped a game – even one against Michigan – and gone to her funeral. So what that Te’o badly wanted a victory after losing during the final seconds to the Wolverines the previous year. It’s still just a game versus the funeral of his beloved girlfriend.
Back to that game in September at Spartan Stadium. After watching it from the press box, I wrote:
“How do you play with a heavy heart? If you are Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te’o, you play the game of your life against Michigan State.”
That night, Te’o finished atop the Notre Dame tackle totals with 12, shared the lead with two pass break-ups and recovered the game’s lone fumble.
“It is a great escape,” Te’o said afterward. “I will be honest. Throughout the game, you are thinking about it. But football allows me to be in a little realm, a little world that I know. I can honor them by the way I played.
“It was for them – for my girl and grandma. And for all my loved ones who have passed on. They are all watching. It was a happy moment.”
I was so impressed with the character and skill he’d displayed that I began to root for Te’o. You very well may have, too.
In the end, though, I voted him second behind Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel on my Heisman ballot. I couldn’t ignore the fact that Manziel had broken all the Southeastern Conference total-offense records and helped hand Alabama its only loss – in Tuscaloosa, no less.
I went with what I could see. I voted with my head rather than with my heart.
Tonight, I feel much better about doing so in this case. But I feel a little sad, too, because maybe I won’t consider my heart next time.