The co-writer of a Deadspin story that exposed the tale of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s alleged girlfriend dying of leukemia as a hoax is skeptical that Te’o could have been duped for so long by a person who didn’t exist.
During Notre Dame’s undefeated march to the Jan. 7 BCS championship game, the heartbreaking tale that the star linebacker's grandmother and girlfriend had both died on Sept. 11, 2012, became a prominent one in college football coverage. After Deadspin published its story on Wednesday detailing that Te’o’s alleged girlfriend, Lennay Marie Kekua, was not a real person, Te’o released a statement saying he was the victim of a hoax.
Timothy Burke, who co-wrote the Deadspin article with Jack Dickey, told Matt Lauer on TODAY Thursday that while he wants to believe Te’o was a victim and not complicit in the hoax, making that leap may be a stretch.
“It takes a great deal of faith if you’re going to believe that Manti Te’o actually spent an entire year with a girlfriend that he never met and that he never had any video chat with,’’ Burke said. “It’s tough for me. I want to believe that Manti Te’o is a smart kid. Playing linebacker for the University of Notre Dame requires a certain amount of smarts, and it would take a pretty, I guess, clueless guy to fall for this for that long. I guess that’s where my skepticism lies.’’
Te’o is in Florida training for the NFL Draft in April. Swarbrick said Te’o may speak as early as today, after initially having planned to discuss the matter next week.
“This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online,” Te’o said in a statement released Wednesday. “We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her.
“To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.”
The Deadspin story detailed how there was nothing in Social Security Administration records about anyone named Lennay Marie Kekua dying on Sept. 11 or any other day. There also was no obituary or funeral announcement found or any mention of her death in the student newspaper at Stanford, where Te’o had said she was a student.
The photographs that were used in Twitter and Instagram accounts under Kekua’s name were determined by Deadspin to be from the social media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman. She told the site that she did not attend Stanford, was never in a car accident, does not have leukemia and never met Te’o.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a press conference Wednesday night that the school believes Te’o was a victim of a “Catfish’’ scam, referring to an MTV reality show about people who make up false identities online.
“The single most trusting human being I’ve ever met will never be able to trust in the same way again in his life,’’ Swarbrick told reporters. “That’s an incredible tragedy.”
Making the story more bizarre is that Te’o’s father told the South Bend Tribune in October that his son and Kekua met in 2009 and that she had come to visit him in Hawaii. That contradicts Te’o’s statement released on Wednesday in which he said the relationship was only online and over the phone.
“You sort of have to ask: Where were the people around Manti who should’ve picked up on these bizarre discrepancies and behavior of his girlfriend to begin with?’’ Burke said. “When his father told the South Bend Tribune that they had met in 2009 and that she had come and visited him in Hawaii, where was that coming from? If you really buy into Manti’s story that he was hoodwinked in this entire thing, he was a victim of a hoax, some of the people around him didn’t really do their due diligence in protecting him from that kind of thing.”
Friends and relatives of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, an acquaintance of Te’o’s, asserted to Deadspin that they believed Tuiasosopo was the one who created the fictional Kekua. This wasn’t the first time Tuiasosopo duped a person with the fake Kekua identity, according to Burke.
“(Tuiasosopo) had previously gotten some other guys suckered into this fake relationship, but the one with Manti Te’o was very different,’’ Burke said. “The previous incidents we know of lasted about a month before the guy figured it out. If we are to believe (Te’o’s) statement, he didn’t catch on the entire year.’’
A friend of Tuiasosopo’s told Deadspin he was “80 percent sure” Te’o was in on the hoax. In another puzzling twist in the story, NFL fullback Reagan Mauia told ESPN he met Kekua in person before 2009.
“This was before her and Manti,” Mauia told ESPN Wednesday. “I don’t think Manti was even in the picture, but she and I became good friends. We would talk off and on, just checking up on each other kind of thing. I am close to her family. When she was going through the loss of her father, I was — I offered a comforting shoulder and just someone to bounce her emotions off. That was just from meeting her in Samoa.”
Swarbrick said that Te’o informed the school about the hoax on Dec. 26, and Notre Dame hired a private investigator to look into it. However, Burke told NBC Sports’ Erik Kuselias Wednesday night that Te’o still talked about their relationship to reporters after Dec. 26, in advance of the national championship game, and did not reveal anything about the hoax.
If Te’o was part of the hoax, the question then turns to why he would go along with it.
“We know every story written about him this season referred to him as the guy who lost his grandmother and his girlfriend in a 24-hour period,’’ Burke said. “That’s part of his story. That’s part of the mythmaking that comes along with being a storied Notre Dame athlete, so he would have an incentive to increase his profile even if it was with these tragic stories.’’