An article in the South Bend Tribune has become something of a smoking gun in the bizarre and convoluted story of Notre Dame player Manti Te’o, who has been painted as the victim of an elaborate hoax. On Wednesday, Deadspin dropped a bomb on one of the most talked-about sports stories of the year: The late girlfriend of the star linebacker who became a national hero after winning a game for his team after her death, which immediately followed the death of his grandmother, never existed. And for now, Te’o and Notre Dame officials insist that the relationship was nonetheless real to him, despite his recent admission that he and Lennay Kekua never met in person – a claim that contradicts the South Bend Tribune’s October 2012 profile of their relationship.
According to the story reported by myriad national media outlets, Kekua died of complications from leukemia just hours after the death of Te’o grandmother, Anette Santiato, on Sept. 11, 2012. Kekua, who was said to be a 22-year-old Stanford student, had purportedly been in a car accident months before, and doctors discovered the disease during treatment for her serious injuries. But while there are records confirming the death of Te’o's grandmother, it did not take much digging for Deadspin reporters to realize Lennay Kekua never lived, or died, as the prevailing, unchecked narrative said she did.
Te’o was mythologized from ESPN to the New York Times and everywhere in between, but it’s an Oct. 12 story titled “What Dreams May Come” that appeared in the South Bend Tribune -- a local Indiana newspaper whose bread and butter is coverage of Notre Dame sports -- that is most emblematic of a fawning media’s eagerness to eat up the heartwarming story. And it’s also the most problematic for Te’o and his defenders, who claim that someone impersonated Kekua and carried on an exclusive online and phone relationship with the footballer.
"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," Te'o said in a statement released after the Deadspin story was published. "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."
But according to the South Bend Tribune story, Te’o asnd Kekua met in person in 2009 and continued to stay in touch as friends until the year before her death, when their friendship became a romance.
"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,” Te’o's father, Brian, is quoted as saying in the article. “But within the last year, they became a couple.”
It appears that Brian Te’o was the only source for reporter Eric Hansen’s article, which also quotes (without attribution) a statement the football star had made to ESPN days earlier.
On Wednesday, South Bend Tribune Executive Editor Tim Harmon released a statement that was published on media commentator Jim Romenesko’s blog:
“At The Tribune, we are as stunned by these revelations as everyone else. Indeed, this season we reported the story of this fake girlfriend and her death as details were given to us by Te’o, members of his family and his coaches at Notre Dame. We’re still trying to put together stories that will be posted later tonight and printed in Thursday’s paper that will answer some, but not all, of the questions about today’s astonishing story.”
Early Thursday, Hansen published a follow-up story about the hoax, which addressed Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick’s press conference and provided some context on the October article in question. Hansen referred back to Brian Te’o’s description of his son’s relationship and said the comments were made in a taped interview on Oct. 10. He also wrote that Mr. Te’o did not respond to further interview requests, adding that Swarbick “reasoned that Te'o's father, Brian, must have misunderstood his son's characterizations when speaking about the relationship roughly a month after the alleged death of Kekua.”
An attempt to reach Hansen for comment via email was met with an auto reply stating he was out of the office, but a colleague reached for follow-up said that everyone in the office, including Hanson, was working on updating the breaking story and unavailable for media requests.
On Thursday afternoon, Harmon posted a note to readers about the hoax story: “We are reporting this story as thoroughly and quickly as we possibly can. As the many reports unfold, we are diligently seeking the truth of what happened. We will regularly update you with the facts as we secure them,” he said, directing readers to an archive with previous stories about “Te'o and his ficticious girlfriend” and welcoming comments from readers.
Later on Thursday afternoon, the Twitter handle @LennayKay, believed to belong to the person who posed as Te’o's girlfriend, published a bizarre tweet after promising to release a statement. It reads: “My statement: This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but I have been told by Alabama's offense that Manti Te'o is not real.”