As the American sports world was shaken by the news that an inspiring, playing-through-heartache story of a college football star was actually as a bizarre lie about a fake dead girlfriend, Manti Te'o and the University of Notre Dame faced questions today about whether he really was duped, as he claimed, or whether he and the university were complicit in a hoax to mislead the public, perhaps to improve his chances of winning an award for the sport's best player.
An Associated Press review of news coverage found that the Heisman Trophy runner-up perpetuated the heartbreaking story about her death not once but twice after he supposedly discovered his online girlfriend of three years never even existed. Te'o talked about his doomed love in a Web interview on December 8 and again in a newspaper interview published December 10. He and the university said yesterday that he learned on December 6 that it was all a hoax - that not only was she not dead, she wasn't even real.
Te'o also lost his grandmother - for real - the same day his girlfriend supposedly died, and his role in leading Notre Dame to its best season in decades endeared him to fans and put him at the center of college football's biggest feel-good story of the year.
Yahoo sports columnist Dan Wetzel said the case has "left everyone wondering whether this was really the case of a naive football player done wrong by friends or a fabrication that has yet to play to its conclusion."
Gregg Doyel, national columnist for CBSSports.com, was more direct.
"Nothing about this story has been comprehensible, or logical, and that extends to what happens next," he wrote. "I cannot comprehend Manti Te'o saying anything that could make me believe he was a victim."
Yesterday 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.
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 had also gotten together in Hawaii, where Te'o grew up.
Te'o never mentioned a face-to-face meeting with Kekua in public comments reviewed by the AP. And an AP review of media reports about Te'o since September 13 turned up no instance in which he directly confirmed or denied those stories - until yesterday.
Sports Illustrated posted a previously unpublished transcript of a one-on-one interview with Te'o from September 23, during which he went 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 today: 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 the athlete had no plans to make any public statements today in Florida, where he has been training with other National Football League prospects at the IMG Academy.
Notre Dame said Te'o found out that Kekau was not a real person through a phone call he received at an awards ceremony in Orlando, Florida, on December 6. He told Notre Dame coaches about the situation on December 26.
The AP's media review turned up two instances during that gap when the football star mentioned Kekua in public.
Te'o was in New York for the Heisman presentation on December 8 and, during an interview before the ceremony that ran on the 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 December 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.
In a story that ran in the Daily Press of Newport News, Virginia, on December 11, Te'o recounted why he played a few days after he found out Kekau 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.
Yesterday, Swarbrick said Notre Dame did not go public with its findings sooner because it expected the Te'o family to come forward first. But Deadspin.com broke the story yesterday.
Reporters were turned away today at the main gate of IMG's sprawling, secure complex. Te'o remained on the grounds, said a person familiar with situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because neither Te'o nor IMG authorised the release of the information.
Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass blasted both Te'o and Notre Dame.
He said the university's failure to call a news conference and go public sooner means "Notre Dame is complicit in the lie."
"The school fell in love with the Te'o girlfriend myth," he wrote.
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