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Friday, January 18, 2013
Manti Te'o kept tragic story going


While Manti Te'o huddles with family and advisers to figure out his next move, many are wondering if he continued to perpetuate the lie that his girlfriend had died after he found out that it was a hoax.

Multiple media outlets have found numerous instances of the Notre Dame linebacker talking about Lennay Kekua as if she had existed after Dec. 6, the date that he and the university say he found out that the girl he thought he was having a relationship with and who died of leukemia was made up.

Te'o told Notre Dame officials that he received a phone call on Dec. 6, while in attendance at an ESPN awards show in Orlando, from a number he recognized as having been that he associated with Kekua. The woman on the line during that phone call told Te'o she had had to fake her own death in order to elude drug dealers, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports, citing a source close to Te'o's family. The woman then tried to restart her relationship with Te'o.

Te'o asked for a photo with a date stamp to verify her identity, the paper reports, but wasn't convinced and then went to his family and school officials to describe the hoax.

At the Heisman Trophy presentation Dec. 8 in New York, ESPN's Chris Fowler asked Te'o what moment of his very public story of tragedy he would remember.

"I think I'll never forget the time when I found out that, you know, my girlfriend passed away and the first person to run to my aid was my defensive coordinator, Coach [Bob] Diaco, and you know he said something very profound to me," Te'o said. "He said, 'This is where your faith is tested.' Right after that, I ran into the players' lounge and I got on the phone with my parents -- and I opened my eyes and my head coach was sitting right there. And so, you know, there are a hundred-plus people on our team and the defensive coordinator and our head coach took time to just go get one (of those players). You know I think that was the most meaningful to me."

Te'o also said on ESPN Radio the same day that he hoped his grandmother, who died Sept. 12, and his girlfriend, who was reported to have died on the same day, were proud of him.

The Associated Press turned up two more instances during that gap between Dec. 6 and Dec. 26, the date when Te'o told Notre Dame that he knew of the hoax, when the football star mentioned Kekua in public.

During another interview at the Heisman ceremony that ran on WSBT.com, the website for a South Bend TV station, Te'o said: "I mean, I don't like cancer at all. I lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer. So I've really tried to go to children's hospitals and see, you know, children."

In a column that first ran in The Los Angeles Times, on Dec. 10, Te'o recounted why he played a few days after he found out Kekua died in September, and the day she was supposedly buried.

"She made me promise, when it happened, that I would stay and play," he said Dec. 9 while attending a ceremony in Newport Beach, Calif., for the Lott Impact Awards.

Meanwhile, on Friday an adviser to Te'o told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap that the linebacker has been huddling this morning with family members and a team of advisers, who are trying to determine the best way for him to address the controversy. The adviser, who has been part of the discussions, also said all of the advisers are thoroughly convinced that Te'o is telling the truth in saying that he was a victim of a hoax.

They are encouraged, too, by the fact that several people have come forward defending and supporting Te'o. The thing most upsetting to Te'o, his adviser said, is that his relatives were also victimized by the hoax and are now suffering because of it.

Te'o's Notre Dame family is also suffering. Doubts about his participation in the scam extend to the campus, where he is one of the most popular players in Notre Dame's storied history.

"Whenever Manti decides to speak I'll bet the entire campus will stop what they're doing and watch what he has to say," Notre Dame student body president Brett Rocheleau said Thursday. "I think the majority of students believe in Manti. They just want to hear him answer these final few questions and hear the story from his point of view."

Anonymous teammates have said in the past few days that they questioned the entire girlfriend scenario.

One former teammate told ESPN's Bob Holtzman on Wednesday that players knew the woman wasn't really his girlfriend even though Te'o played that up as his tragic story was being told.

Multiple media reports also have said players thought that Te'o had only met Kekua once and that it wasn't really accurate to call her his girlfriend. But as condolences poured in, Te'o "played along," according to the teammate, who wished to remain anonymous.

The teammate portrayed the move as part of the All-American's personality, telling ESPN that Te'o liked attention so much that he would sometimes point himself out to friends when he was on television.

Te'o's recent silence and the timeline of events raise questions about whether he really was duped, as he claimed, or whether he was complicit in the hoax and misled the public, perhaps to improve his chances of winning the Heisman. He came in second, propelled by one of the most compelling plot lines of the season.

But the story doesn't add up.

On Wednesday, Te'o and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the player was drawn into a virtual romance with a woman who used the phony name Lennay Kekua, and was fooled into believing she died of leukemia in September. They said his only contact with the woman was via the Internet and telephone. Te'o was not at the news conference; the school released a 225-word statement from him.

Relying on information provided by Te'o's family members, the South Bend Tribune reported in October that Te'o and Kekua first met, in person, in 2009, and that the two also had gotten together in Hawaii, where Te'o grew up.

South Bend Tribune sportswriter Eric Hansen told WSBT-TV on Friday that he still has the recording of the interview with Te'o's father Brian and mother Ottilia and listened to it again to make sure he didn't misquote the father.

"They met at Stanford his freshman year, they shook hands," Hansen said, according to WSBT-TV, of what Brian Te'o said. "This was an in-person meeting and there were subsequent meetings in Hawaii when Manti would go home.  Again, from listening to the tape, I don't think Brian ever saw her or met her."

Hansen has been rattled by the experience and wants to know the truth.

"That's again what I'm trying to get to the bottom of -- what's real here and what's not? Is Manti a victim? Is somebody else a victim? Do I need to do my job differently when I've had multiple sources I trust confirm things? Do I need to go get a picture of a corpse?" Hansen said, according to WSBT-TV.

Sports Illustrated has posted a previously unpublished transcript of a one-on-one interview with Te'o from Sept. 23 that backs up the South Bend Tribune story. In it, he goes into great detail about his relationship with Kekua and her physical ailments. He also mentioned meeting her for the first time after a game in California.

"We met just, ummmm, just she knew my cousin. And kind of saw me there so. Just kind of regular," he told SI.

Among the outstanding questions: Why didn't Te'o ever clarify the nature of his relationship as the story took on a life of its own?

Te'o's agent, Tom Condon, said earlier Friday that the athlete had no plans to make any public statements in Bradenton, Fla., where he has been training with other NFL hopefuls at the IMG Academy.

On Wednesday, when Deadspin.com broke the story, Swarbrick said Notre Dame did not go public with its findings sooner because it expected the Te'o family to come forward first.

Swarbrick says he is encouraging Te'o to speak publicly.

"I don't have any specific knowledge as to how and when, but I can't fathom a circumstance where it doesn't (happen). I sort of share everybody's view that it has to happen. We are certainly encouraging it to happen. We think it's important and we'd like to see it happen sooner rather than later," Swarbrick said.

Swarbrick says university officials understand there is more to be learned, but that based on knowing Te'o, he believes the linebacker is a victim. He says he will continue to believe that until given "compelling evidence to the contrary."

Swarbrick added that before Deadspin.com broke the news with a lengthy report on Wednesday, Te'o and his family had planned to go public with the story Monday.

As Te'o remains silent, some Irish teammates are coming to his defense and saying they don't think he took part in the hoax.

"Absolutely it seemed real," said former Irish receiver John Goodman, according to the Chicago Tribune. "It was real. If you watch his interviews -- if he's that good of an actor, then Hollywood better be giving him a call. But obviously Manti is like the rest of us. It was real in the locker room, real on the field, and that's what I know of it."

Former safety Zeke Motta, who lived in the same house as Te'o this past fall, told the Tribune: "Manti is a great teammate and friend. I wish people wouldn't make comments about things without knowing all the facts."

Asked if the NCAA was monitoring the Te'o story for possible rules violations, NCAA president Mark Emmert said:

"We don't know anything more than you do," he told reporters at the organization's convention in Dallas. "We're learning about this through the stories just the same as you are. But we have to wait and see what really transpired there. It's obviously (a) very disturbing story and it's hard to tell where the facts lie at this point.

"But Notre Dame is obviously looking into it and there will be a lot more to come forward. Right now, it just looks ... well, we don't know what the facts are, so I shouldn't comment beyond that."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.