Notre Dame: Manti Te'o Victim Of Girlfriend Hoax

Star Linebacker Manti Te'o's play gained national attention. His achievements were particularly noteworthy because his last year of play was marred by the deaths of his grandmother and of his girlfriend. Now it appears the girlfriend didn't exist.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Manti Te'o, the star linebacker of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish is known for big plays on the field. He finished second in Heisman Trophy balloting as college football's most outstanding player. And he also had a story to tell. Last September he said both his grandmother and his girlfriend died within hours of each other.

The girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, succumbed to cancer, he said. The part about the grandmother is true, but the website Deadspin has reported that Lennay Kekua never died, never had cancer, never was Manti Te'o's girlfriend and, in fact, never existed. NPR's Mike Pesca is on the line to try to explain this. Mike, good morning.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hello.

INSKEEP: So how did Te'o end up talking on TV about a dead girlfriend who never existed?

PESCA: Well, the latest news that we have - and this is based on a statement that Manti Te'o released and a press conference that was given by the athletic director of Notre Dame - is he believed he had a girlfriend, although he never met her. It was an online relationship and he was scammed or hoaxed.

Now, there are a couple of complications to this story, such as in the beginning of reporting this story, Manti Te'o's father Brian was quoted in the South Bend Tribune as talking about details of their meeting, saying their eyes locked across the field when Manti Te'o was at Stanford where Lennay Kukua supposedly was an undergraduate, and they held hands and details that would indicate that they met in person. But it is possible that Manti Te'o's father heard this from Manti and told the story secondhand. Or perhaps it's also possible, that at some point Manti realized what was going on and there was a conflation of events.

Although the official story is that that Manti Te'o believed that he had a girlfriend who died during the season. He played for her. He sent roses to her for her funeral. And then just weeks ago, he got a call from her number and from someone claiming to be her. And he got very upset and he told Notre Dame officials about it and they investigated it.

It was only in the last few weeks that he realized what was going on.

INSKEEP: OK. All right. So just to be clear, you and I are pronouncing the girlfriend's name a little differently. There's really no one we can check on that with, because no such person exists.

PESCA: Yes.

INSKEEP: Weren't there pictures of her on Facebook?

PESCA: Yes. And this sort of points the finger at - well, Deadspin, who broke the story and we should credit them almost entirely with this, talked to a woman whose picture it was apparently. They didn't name her. She requested anonymity. She was appalled. She had no real connection - well, she actually does have a little bit of a connection to the person who supposedly was behind the story.

But they were using pictures of another person. But there were no pictures of Manti and the girlfriend ever pictured together, which was another interesting aspect of this and something that none of the media actually ever followed up on.

INSKEEP: Which is another thing - just a reminder of how much gets out there without being checked by people whose job it is to do that. But how does this affect Manti Te'o, that he's now connected to this bizarre hoax? He's made all these that, wittingly or not, were false.

PESCA: Yeah. This is somewhere between an extremely curious and possibly tragic story. Although, when you think about it, one aspect of the tragedy that she supposedly died, well, I guess if it's all a story that never happened. But, you know, how it affects him in terms of his draft status - and that's the bottom line - he's going to be in the NFL. He projected as going as a first round, maybe a mid-first round or early first round pick.

Some GMs have been quoted, sometimes anonymously, saying this could affect his status. We have to worry about him. But I think that might be overblown. If when they talk to Manti Te'o they get a decent explanation that he really was the victim and is perhaps gullible, compared to people who get drafted into the NFL - people who have assaulted their girlfriends and done terrible things - I don't think being gullible disqualifies you from being in the NFL.

If that, indeed, is the entirety of his story.

INSKEEP: Maybe better to have an imaginary girlfriend. Mike, thanks very much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mike Pesca right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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