Twenty-one-year-old Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o led his team to the Bowl Champion Series (BCS) game and was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. Te’o is now gaining attention for a topic far different from his athletic career. His reputation and fan base soared after the story was made public that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, passed away from leukemia in Sept. 2012, just hours after his grandmother Annette Santiago died. Despite the occurrences, Te’o went on to have an astonishing season, becoming one of the most inspirational stories in college football.
On Wednesday, Jan.17, a story by the sports blog Deadspin alleged that Manti Te’o’s girlfriend never existed. Both media and fans came to the immediate conclusion that Te’o was a part of the hoax as a publicity stunt. Te’o and Notre Dame have insisted that the linebacker was duped, a victim of “catfishing.” The term has been made popular by MTV’s show Catfish, which documents the experiences of individuals who have been in online relationships. As defined by the show’s creator, Nev Schulman, to “catfish” someone is to engage in an online relationship based on false information.
Manti Te’o told ESPN that he “wasn’t faking it” and he acknowledged that he had crafted stories about the woman he had called the love of his life. Te’o admitted to his “tailored” stories, including telling his father that he met “Lennay Kekua” in Hawaii, when in reality he never did. He later added that he feared people would think it was crazy for him to be involved with someone that he never met, so he stated, “I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away.” Te’o said he only confirmed the week of Jan. 17 that he had been fooled.
It was confirmed the last week of January that Manti Te’o had no part in the hoax and “Lennay Kekua” was created by California native, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. The Palmdale man who created the fictitious girlfriend of the Notre Dame linebacker said although the woman was fake, his feelings for the football star were not. Tuiasosopo, 22, spoke publicly for the first time regarding the allegations in an interview with Dr. Phil. The interview began with Tuiasosopo confirming that he was the one behind “Lennay Kekua.” Tuiasosopo said he considered Kekua another part of him and realized the more he communicated with Te’o, the more his own feelings become involved. The two shared “common values and bonded over faith and family,” he said. Later in the interview, the hoaxer verified that he is homosexual.
The face of Lennay Kekua was identified as 23-year-old Los Angeles marketing coordinator and graduate of California State University, Diane O’Meara. Her lawyer told Inside Edition that she was also a victim, and that she does not know Te’o but that photos of her were stolen and used to create the illusion of Te’o’s alleged girlfriend.
Despite the allegations that Te’o would have difficulty with the NFL draft after this hoax, he is getting support from NFL players, including Baltimore Ravens linebacker, Adrian Hamilton, who says he would welcome Manti to the team with open arms “cause the dude can ball. Hamilton explains that all the drama surrounding “Lennay Kekua” is irrelevant “cause it’s what Te’o can do on the field that matters.”