What did Manti Te'o know about Lennay Kekua?

Known knowns and known unknowns on the college football hoax

By Prachi Gupta
January 24, 2013 10:10PM (UTC)
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Sports reporters have been in a frenzy trying to determine to what extent, if any, Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o was in on the hoax that's become one of the most confusing scandals in recent memory. The football star will give his first televised interview at 3 p.m. ET today with Katie Couric. This should catch you up on everything known so far about Manti Te'o and the death of his fake girlfriend:

The background:


Manti Te’o's success was one of the biggest college sports stories of 2012. He won eight postseason awards as a linebacker for Notre Dame, becoming one of the most decorated college football players of all time. He was runner-up for this year's Heisman Trophy, the most coveted individual prize in NCAA football and was projected to be a first-round NFL pick.

Until recently, Te'o was also living the life of a media darling. A devout Mormon, he identifies himself as family-oriented and religious. Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel, who wrote a cover story on Te’o in October, describes his celebrity appeal: “Te'o graduated from Barack Obama's high school, practices Mitt Romney's religion and has post football career goals similar to Tim Tebow's.”

The coverage of his football heroics was all the more adoring for the tragedies he overcame to achieve them. The story went that his grandmother, Annette Santiago, and his leukemia-stricken girlfriend, Melelengei “Lennay” Kekua, died within six hours of each other in September shortly before he delivered a dominating performance against Michigan State.

Last week the world learned that college sports’ most inspirational story was a fiction: After receiving an anonymous tip, Deadspin broke the news on Jan. 16 that Lennay Kekua did not die, because she had never existed in the first place.

How did no one know that Lennay Kekua was fake?

The media paid little attention to Lennay Kekua until she "died" in September. The short version is that the couple forged an online, non-physical relationship over the years, which Te’o never mentioned to reporters, and reporters never really pried (and why would they?). In Thamel’s interview, for example, Te’o said he met Kekua through a cousin. As Thamel later recalled, "He never specified that he'd met her in person, and I didn't ask. Why would you ask someone if he'd actually met his girlfriend who recently died?"

Te'o lied to his parents about the relationship, too, assuring them that he had met her, even though he hadn't. In October 2012, the South Bend Tribune's Eric Hansen wrote that “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.” But that November 2009 meeting never happened. (It’s not clear where Hansen’s account comes from.)

What we know now, however, is that Kekua and Te’o did meet online. Deadspin reporters argue that Te’o met Kekua on Twitter on Oct 10, 2011, when he tweeted to Kekua “nice to meet u too ma'am" (Te'o told Thamel that the two started dating on Oct. 15, 2011). In an interview this weekend with ESPN's Jeremy Schaap, however, Te’o confesses that the relationship began as a friendship via Facebook in 2009, when he accepted her friend request.  In the version he told to Schaap, the two didn't get serious until April 28, 2012.

Te’o was skeptical about Kekua’s identity, but he's either willfully naive, lying or downright dumb: He thought she checked out because his cousin and a “former Oregon State quarterback who used to talk to her” said she was "real." (Allegedly, even his former neighbor, a beauty queen, confirmed this to Te'o). It's not clear how any of them could vouch for her being “real” without having met her, but they didn't specify and Te'o didn't ask.

And so, Te’o explained, he entered into a friendship with a "real" girl, which thanks to tragedies in Kekua’s life -- the death of her father, a car crash, a cancer diagnosis, a bone marrow transplant -- evolved into a deeply spiritual relationship that he maintained with her via phone and Internet.

How Te'o discovered that Kekua was fake:

Like many of the details, this is still fuzzy. Someone called Te'o from the number he had for Kekua on Dec. 6, 2012, two days before Te'o would be named the Heisman runner-up, and two months after Kekua had supposedly died.

When describing the phone call to ESPN's Schaap, Te'o couldn't recall if the voice was Lennay's or not. More puzzling, he claims that even then he didn't know if Kekua was fake -- just that, for the first time ever, he was confused about her identity. Schaap asked, "You think there was a Lennay who never died?" and Te'o responded, "I'm thinking a lot of things; OK. So this could be a prank. She died, and all these guys are trying to pull a prank on me, or is she still alive? What is going on? What's going on?"

But on Dec. 8, Te'o played it off like nothing had changed. In a clip released Wednesday from the Couric interview, Te'o suggests that he was more than just confused after receiving the call: "Katie, put yourself in my situation. I, my whole world told me that she died on Sept. 12. Everybody knew that. This girl, who I committed myself to, died on Sept. 12. Now I get a phone call on Dec. 6, saying that she's alive and then I'm going be put on national TV two days later. And to ask me about the same question. You know, what would you do?"

He eventually told the coaching staff about the incident right after Christmas, but kept talking to Kekua's voice throughout the month, trying to get answers that led nowhere -- in fact, Te'o attempted to meet Kekua and her friends on Jan. 7, the day of the national championship in Miami. Needless to say, Kekua didn’t materialize. He recalls to Schaap that whomever he was speaking to told him, “I’ll tell you the truth on 16th. I’ll tell you the truth on the 16th. You’ll know everything on the 16th" -- the day the story broke.

The person behind Lennay Kekua:

This isn't totally clear yet, but here's what we know: Deadspin has outed Lennay Kekua's "cousin," a 22-year-old man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, as the person behind her Twitter account.

Tuiasosopo, whose life oddly mirrored Kekua's (his cousin has been diagnosed with leukemia and he was in a car crash within a month of Kekua's), also came up again and again in Te'o's retelling to Schaap. When he was supposed to meet up with Kekua, often Tuiasosopo would appear instead with Pookah, his little sister -- Kekua's "niece." (Although Te'o didn't seem to be fazed by any of this, his uncle thought Tuiasosopo was suspicious.)

After the story broke, ESPN reported that Tuiasosopo admitted his guilt to a friend, who said: "He (Ronaiah) told me that Manti was not involved at all, he was a victim. ... The girlfriend was a lie, the accident was a lie, the leukemia was a lie," said the woman. "He was crying, he was literally crying, he's like, 'I know, I know what I have to do,'" adding, "It's not only Manti, but he was telling me that it's a lot of other people they had done this to."

Meanwhile, Lennay Kekua's physical identity was stolen from 23-year-old Diane O'Meara, a marketing executive who went to high school with Tuiasosopo. And Kekua's name may have come from a family that lived on Tuiasospo's street in California, though no one in the family is named "Lennay."

And one might argue that Tuiasosopo couldn't have pulled this off alone, as Te'o was talking to a female regularly on the phone (phone records confirm that Te'o racked up more than 500 hours and  1,000 phone calls from a number traced to Los Angeles County, where Kekua allegedly lived). But the hard-to-believe story of Te'o's gullibility gets even harder to believe: All that time, Te'o might have been talking to a man. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo's lawyer, Milton Grimes (who represented Rodney King in a 1994 settlement case), told the Daily News that Tuiasosopo was also the feminine voice of Lennay Kekua. “Come on, Hollywood does it all the time,” Grimes said. “People can do that.” [Update: Te'o has released some of the voicemails from Kekua. Listen to them here.]

How the scandal affects Te'o's NFL prospects:

Every scout and NFL official is going to ask Te'o about the hoax at the NFL Scouting combine, coming up at the end of February. "It's a little bit mind-boggling to think what did happen, what he did know," said Broncos executive vice president John Elway. "He's going to get asked about it probably 32 times at the combine. Everyone is going to ask him about it. It's hard for us to understand why he wouldn't know?"

Sports commentator and former Philadelphia 76er Charles Barkley is equally stupefied, calling Te'o an "idiot": "I'm going to say some racial stuff right now. And it's not racist, but you've got to listen to me. It's different when you're black and when you're white. If you're black, you're a cook. If you're white, you're a chef. If you're black, you're a gang member, if you're white, you're in the mob. If you're black you're a stone damn idiot, and if you're white y'all give it names like 'Catfish' now. Y'all can't just be making up words when somebody is a damn idiot, man. When somebody is a damn idiot y'all have to call him an idiot."

Though it's certainly a strange story, the NFL might not care. New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese said, "We call that situation in our room 'NMI.' You know what that stands for? Need more information. We don't rush to judge anything. I don't know the details, but there's probably been worse things."

Amid Te'o's multiple lies and all the red flags he ignored along the way, it's hard to believe that the football star was victim of an online hoax. But it's almost harder to believe that anyone could willingly set up something so elaborate and insane just for the sake of publicity or any other motive. Te'o's interview with Couric might not answer any of the contradictions that remain, but at least America will get to satisfy its curiosity by analyzing every facial tic and trace of emotion, which is just one more piece of this puzzle.

Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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Catfish Heisman Lennay Kekua Manti Te'o Notre Dame Ronaiah Tuiasosopo