The 2012 college football season has brought us some memorable stories: the first freshman to win the Heisman, Alabama’s third national championship under Nick Saban, Penn State rising from the ashes of a massive scandal. The biggest story of the season, though, comes to us courtesy of the off-season. The breaking news of the phantom girlfriend of Manti Te’o has dominated the airwaves of both sports outlets and traditional news coverage.
The story of Manti’s so-called relationship began in 2009 when he became friends with a person named Lennay Kekua on Facebook. The two exchanged Facebook messages and maintained an on-again/off-again relationship that grew to include texts and phone calls. What was missing from this? A face-to-face meeting between Te’o and Kekua.
After two years of their communication had passed, Kekua messaged Te’o, complaining that she and her boyfriend had gotten into difficult times. Her explicit request for Te’o to be there for her signaled a progressive step in their relationship. Te’o began hearing about Kekua’s family, including her cousin, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, and how close the two were. Kekua and Te’o then began a dating relationship based exclusively on contact through Facebook and cell phones.
In April of 2012, Te’o was called by Lennay’s brother, Noa, informing him that she had been in a car crash and was in a hospital in Los Angeles. Just two months after this phone call, Kekua tells Te’o that she has leukemia. Further complicating the life of Manti Te’o, his grandmother passed away in September of 2012. On the same day, two hours after Kekua calls Te’o to tell him that she will do whatever she can to help him in his time of trouble, her supposed brother calls Manti sobbing and saying “she’s gone.”
Shortly thereafter, Manti is warned by a man from California of the Lennay Kekua hoax, saying that his cousin was in a similar position to that of Te’o. The California resident cited meetings with Tuiasosopo that were supposed to be with Kekua as the most sure sign that the entire relationship was a hoax. Two days after Te’o learns of the previous hoax, Lennay Kekua calls Manti to tell him that she is not, in fact, dead.
In late December, after being informed of the cruel joke by Te’o, Notre Dame officials launch a full investigation into the matter. As her last official act of business, Kekua calls Te’o to apologize and inform him that her real name is Leah, and that she will reveal the truth on January 16th, 2013. Upon the day of revelation, however, Tuiasosopo calls Manti to apologize for the prank. Later that day, Deadspin broke the story that was quickly picked up by every news outlet in the country. In immediate response to the spreading story, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick held a press conference to reveal the findings of their investigation and clear Te’o from any blame.
Where are we left in the Te’o story as January winds down? Most believe that Te’o truly is innocent in the entire situation, while a few others gape in disbelief that someone could be so thick as to get sucked into something this appalling. Did Te’o really go four years in friendship and dating with someone he never met and come out blameless? Maybe. Did Te’o manufacture the story for attention? Maybe. The truth might even lie somewhere in between. Whatever the case may be, it remains certain that catfishing does not just live on MTV.