A former Notre Dame football star whose story of triumph over tragedy inspired millions was exposed as a fraud Wednesday. Manti Te’o, the runner up for the Heisman trophy, told the media his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, 22, and his grandmother died within hours of each other in September.
“I miss ‘em, but I know that I’ll see them again one day,” he told ESPN before Notre Dame was blown out by Alabama in the college football’s BCS National Championship in Miami on January 7.
The gifted linebacker became the face of the BCS title game as he spun his web of lies about Kekua. He made national headlines when he said his “girlfriend” suffered serious injuries in a car crash a month before she died of leukemia in Hawaii.
The national media — and in particular, the sports networks, tripped over themselves in their rush to uplift Te’o as a symbol of hope over adversity, or whatever.
Had the news organizations done their homework, they would have learned that Te’o's grandmother did in fact die in September, but there is no Lennay Kekua listed in Social Security records or anywhere else. That’s because she doesn’t exist anywhere — except online and inside Te’o's head.
Te’o’ — a pathological liar — now claims he is the innocent victim of an elaborate hoax, despite the fact that he told reporters he met Kekua and she was “the love of his life.” Te’o claimed he stayed on the phone with Kekua for 8 hours while she lay sleeping in her death bed.
In a sappy article for a South Bend, Indiana newspaper, a reporter described Te’o and Kekua’s fairy tale romance. How they met after a football game in Palo Alto, California, in 2009, and how they stared into each other’s eyes as love took hold of their heart strings.
“Lennay Kekua was a Stanford student and Cardinal football fan when the two exchanged glances, handshakes and phone numbers that fateful weekend three seasons ago,” the article said.
Even Te’o's father seemed to confirm her existence:
“They started out as just friends. 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. But within the last year, they became a couple.”
Strangely, after Kekua “died”, Te’o chose to play in the Orange Bowl rather than attend her funeral; because that’s what she would have wanted him to do, he claimed.
Teo’s web of lies unraveled in spectacular fashion when Deadspin magazine published an article exposing Te’o as a fraud.
Unlike the national news organizations who choose ratings over accuracy, Deadspin’s writers did their homework. They called funeral homes and a cancer hospital in Carson, California, where Te’o said Kekua went for cancer treatments.
Their search turned up nothing. They ultimately reached the conclusion that Te’o's fake girlfriend was an elaborate hoax — a ruse to wring sympathy out of the Heisman voters.
“Te’o's story that he is completely innocent in this does not really ring true to us,” Timothy Burke, who broke the story for Deaspin, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper Wednesday night.
“What do you do when you first want to know something, you Google it, right?” Burke said on CNN.
“There’s no evidence of her existing in any way, other than, you know, after she had allegedly died. And we thought that was a little weird.”
The search ended when Deadspin’s writers found the woman in the photo that Te’o claimed was his girlfriend. The woman is very much alive, but she has never met Te’o.
She does know a good friend of his, though.
The woman, whom Deadspin referred to as “Reba” to protect her identity, said she was contacted in September by a high school friend who asked her to take a photo holding up a sign. It was for a friend who was in a serious car accident, he said.
That photo later turned up in the profile of a Twitter account for a Lennay Kekua.
In a statement for ESPN, Te’o continued his pathetic lies:
“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.”
On Wednesday, after the story exploded in headlines all over the world, Lennay Kekay came to life — in the form of a Twitter account that was previously connected to the man Deadspin believes is Te’o's homosexual lover.
A tweet sent from the @LennayKay Twitter account said: “.. a lot of truths and myths need to be addressed here, and they will be at noon PST tomorrow.”
Photo: Mike Ehrmann / AFP / Getty Images