In a story that reads like an episode of the MTV reality show “Catfish,” Deadspin has published an article claiming that the sensational, nationally covered love story of 21-year-old Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and his dying girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, was a media hoax possibly invented to hype Te’o’s football career, and the girl who inadvertently became the face of Kekua is just as shocked as anyone.
The lengthy article, co-written by Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, attempts to piece together what the authors describe as “the most heartbreaking and inspirational story of the college football season” -- the much-publicized story of how Te’o, a rising star in the college football scene, sought strength and courage from his terminally ill girlfriend, even playing in a game in her honor against Michigan State just three days after her death.
Kekua, who had been described as a student at Stanford, allegedly met Te’o at a Stanford-Notre Game in 2009 before Te'o began a whirlwind courtship. Kekua and Te’o were so serious about each other that she flew out to his hometown in Hawaii several times to meet his family, a fact that was later corroborated by Manti’s father, Brian. But Kekua’s brief life was marred by immense obstacles: Just months after surviving a near-fatal car accident, she was diagnosed with leukemia, and she eventually succumbed to the disease in mid-September, around the same time as the death of Te’o’s maternal grandmother.
But upon investigating this story, the two Deadspin reporters who tried to untangle the chronology of the couple’s relationship -- and to substantiate Kekua’s existence -- turned up extremely inconsistent results. Not only could the reporters not confirm the date of Kekua’s funeral or death (she was variously reported to have died on Sep 11., Sep. 14 and Sep. 15 by the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune, the New York Post and ESPN, respectively), but they also could not even find any record of such a person attending Stanford.
The ensuing takedown piece of Te’o, previously portrayed by the media as a deeply religious Mormon, has resulted in shock all around the collegiate football community. As NPR reports, Te’o’s story had been circulated by numerous news outlets, including Sports Illustrated and CBS.
While the story did prove to be initially successful in what Deadspin called extending “the tradition of so much of Notre Dame’s mythmaking ... with the help of a compliant press,” the real Lennay Kekua, whom Deadspin referred to as Reba, didn’t discover that she had become the face of Te’o’s dying girlfriend until last week.
The Deadspin writers reported that they had gotten in touch with Reba last week and that she had quickly become horrified to realize that she had been involved in the scam. "That picture," she told the reporters during a phone interview, "is a picture of me from my Facebook account."
After learning of the elaborate hoax, Reba revealed a strange encounter she had in December 2012. She claimed that a former high school classmate, whom she remembered positively, had messaged her with a somewhat bizarre request. The classmate’s cousin had been in a car accident, and he had seen Reba’s photos on Facebook and told his cousin (Reba's classmate) he thought she was pretty. Accepting the harmless flattery, Reba agreed to take a photo of herself for the boy’s cousin, holding a sign that said “MSMK,” to be included in a slideshow intended to help cheer him up. Reba said that she didn’t ask what MSMK meant, and the classmate didn’t offer an explanation.
After finding that photo, and several more of her, on a Twitter account linked to Manti Te’o’s allegedly dead girlfriend, Reba panicked. When she contacted the classmate, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, an acquaintance of Te’o’s, he seemed disturbed by the news and "immediately began acting weird."
Tuiasosopo reportedly told Reba, "don't worry about it," and minutes later her photos had been taken down from the account.
Te’o responded to the allegations earlier Wednesday in an email to Notre Dame, claiming he had been the real victim.