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Say It Ain’t Te’o: The Bizarre and Unfolding Scandal of a Notre Dame Star Linebacker

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When Notre Dame lost to Alabama in the BCS Championship Game earlier this month, the silver lining for the Fighting Irish was that star linebacker Manti Te’o had bravely fought through the tragedy of losing his grandmother and leukemia-stricken girlfriend Lennay Kekua on the same day back in September to lead his team to one of its most successful seasons in recent memory. With the sports world constantly rocked with more bad than good news these days, it made sense for everyone to grab onto a heart-warming story like this. Upon news of Kekua’s story (as told by Te’o), some cancer fundraising activities even started up around the country.

But no one, not CBS, not Sports Illustrated, nor any other mainstream outlet or sports blog sites that covered Te’o during the past season raised any serious questions about his account. It was only after popular online sports site Deadspin.com investigated and wrote a bombshell of an article (helped by an anonymous tipster) the other day that what was a truly unbelievable personal triumph-over-tragedy story was revealed as not believable at all—there was no such person named Lennay Kekua.

It was a fictitious person created by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, according to a woman in her mid-20s and church friend of his who he allegedly confessed to last month. She spoke about this anonymously to Shelley Smith of ESPN and is convinced Te’o truly was a victim of Tuiasosopo’s sophisticated lies. (The woman also says this wasn’t the first time Tuiasosopo duped somebody.)

Te’o hasn’t told his full story as of yet but through CAA, which represents him, he called himself a victim of a cruel, “sick joke.” He reportedly knew this in early December, however, and told team officials what he knew on the day after Christmas, so it is still unclear why he never went public about the hoax.

Notre Dame officials are standing by Te’o as of now, and the runner-up for this past season’s Heisman award is currently working out for NFL teams. In his impressive final season as Notre Dame’s star linebacker, he accumulated 113 tackles and had seven interceptions. And, the eight postseason awards he earned at the end of the year make him one of the most decorated defensive players in college football history.

Te’o’s NFL draft status will likely not be affected by the scandal, no matter how strange and revealing it gets, according to many professionals, including former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick. He will most likely still be drafted in the first round of the draft in April. 

And as for cancer fundraising initiaves started and inspired by Teo’s (now fake) tale of his loss of Kekua? So far, reports have come out that at least one of them will not be abandoned. After the Irish lost their title game on January 7, one fan started a $5,000 leukemia research fundraising drive on Indiegogo.com soon afterward.

In an email, a spokesperson from Indiegogo.com told me, “At this time, Indiegogo does not have plans to take the campaign down in light of the recent hoax allegations.” And unless that campaign too is found to be fraudulent or in violation of the site’s terms of service, the money raised (over $4,400 so far) will still go directly to its intended destination, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

So if you’re looking for a real silver lining amid this bizarre, fast-moving scandal, this is it.

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About Charlie Doherty

Copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; print/web journalist/freelancer, formerly for Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; co-head sports editor & asst. music editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA); Featured in Guitar World May 2014. See me on twitter.com/chucko33, myspace.com/charlied, & Facebook.
  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Great article, Charlie!

  • Igor

    The worship we lavish on sports and sport figures is shocking.

    No one should care that much about those unfortunate characters.

  • Igor

    Just another headline in the Showbiz section of the news, folks, designed to draw your consumer eye to an advertisement for Tide Soap Suds, or somesuch.

    What weird idea will the sports scriptwriters come up with next? Stay tuned!