I've been trying to wrap my mind around this Manti Te'o mystery for 16 hours since the report by Tim Burke and Jack Dickey was published on Deadspin. Incredibly, that single story has almost 3 million hits in less than a day. It has captured the sports world like no story I can ever remember. It's made Lance Armstrong's groundbreaking interview with Oprah airing tonight a complete afterthought. It made Chip Kelly leaving Oregon for the Philadelphia Eagles seem like it happened a decade ago. Did you even know there was a report yesterday that Tiger Woods wants to get back together with Elin! I know, crazy, right? In the words of the great hockey announcer Bob Cole, everything is happening!
In this day and age though, with a story this big, everyone has to try to grab a piece of the pie. Everyone needs to have a take. Everyone needs to have an opinion. But that's exactly where I struggle, because I have no idea what to believe. I have no idea who to believe. Manti Te'o's girlfriend who tragically lost her life never existed? The one that had her picture on television, the one who Te'o talked about throughout the season? Can we be sure Te'o himself exists? What about Rudy or the Gipper? Is there anything real in the world anymore?
Every time I think I am getting a grasp of this story, I take another turn into an even more bizarre world. Every time I think I'm escaping the wilderness and gaining some insight and clarity, the mystery encaptures me once again. Several Twitter accounts began tweeting last night about the Lennay Kekua hoax and the involvement of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo as the person behind her existence and I had flashbacks to Sarah Phillips and Willy Wonka. After sifting through those tweets last night, I began to believe that perhaps Te'o was the victim of an elaborate Catfishing prank that got way out of hand. Perhaps Te'o filled in some of the details to the media about their "relationship" because he was slightly embarrassed about an exclusively online relationship. Perhaps Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick and Te'o are telling the truth.
But then the questions start to arise again. What about the timeline? What about the stories about Te'o meeting Kekua in person at a Stanford game? What about her visits to see Te'o in Hawaii?
As more answers appear to arise, they turn out to be an elaborate mirage as those answers become replaced by more and more questions. At the end of the day, all we are left with is more questions...
***If Lennay Kekua did not exist, who was it that Arizona Cardinals FB Reagan Mauia met? Because as Reagan Mauia tells it, there was a real in-the-flesh person who claimed to be Lennay Kekua...
"Reagan Mauia, an Arizona Cardinals fullback, said he believes Kekua existed because he met her in person when he and other Polynesian teammates and Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu went to do charity work in American Samoa in June 2011.
"This was before her and Manti," Mauia said Wednesday evening. "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."
Mauia said Tuiasosopo -- whom Mauia believes is Kekua's cousin -- introduced the two. After the initial meeting, Mauia said he met her at an "after-party" for all of the athletes involved in the camp.
"She was tall," he said. "Volleyball-type of physique. She was athletic, tall, beautiful. Long hair. Polynesian. She looked like a model ... "
Does Ronaiah Tuiasosopo have an accomplice? How could an Arizona Cardinals player meet Manti Te'o's girlfriend in person when Te'o never did the same? Could the person Mauia met in-the-flesh be the one who was supposedly on the phone with Te'o?
***As everyone tells their sides of the story, more conflicts begin to emerge. One former Stanford player, Matthew Masifilo, tweeted that Te'o would ask Stanford players if they knew his "mystery girl"...
Got to believe Te'o was the victim here.He would always ask us if we knew his mystery girl after we'd play them....
— Matthew Masifilo (@MMasifilo) January 17, 2013
But then, an anonymous Notre Dame player is quoted as saying to Jackie Pepper that Te'o was in on the scheme because of the increased publicity, claiming the star linebacker's acting was "very good"...
"Early in my conversation with the source, the Notre Dame player said, “He lied, but the media blew it up.” In response to my follow-up question asking if the source thought that Te’o kept the story going because of the media attention, the player replied, “Yeah. Right after the Michigan [State] game. He should have never brought her in the media. His grandma passing was enough."
Did Te'o go so deep in the hoax that he would ask Stanford players about a "mystery" girl he knew never existed? Was he that good of an actor? For that matter, why did nobody at the University of Stanford ever check to see if Lennay Kekua was actually a student there? Or, should we not believe the anonymous Notre Dame player? Is the truth actually somewhere between Te'o the victim and Te'o the mastermind? Was Te'o just an exaggerator or an orchestrator?
***If Te'o never met Kekua in person, what do we make of the often-told story from the South Bend Tribune that documents Te'o meeting Kekua after a Stanford game all the way back in 2009. The Tribune article talks romantically about their stares being "pleasantly tangled" in their first meeting and gives these details...
"Lennay Kekua was a Stanford student and Cardinal football fan when the two exchanged glances, handshakes and phone numbers that fateful weekend three seasons ago."
In the same article, Manti Te'o's father Brian talks about visits Kekua would make to Hawaii when Te'o was home, presumably so they could see each other. The source for these stories? Brian Te'o. At last night's ND press conference, the author of that story, Eric Hansen, claimed it was Brian Te'o who informed him of his son's face-to-face meeting with Lennay Kekua. Did Manti tell that story to his father in hopes he wouldn't find out that the relationship was solely online? Or was there something darker to hide? What did Te'o's father really know about those visits to Hawaii? What did Brian Te'o really know, if anything? At this point, I'm thinking the only person who truly knows anything is Lennay Kekua, and that's not really much help right now.
***The Notre Dame statement claims Te'o and his family informed the school about the hoax on December 26th. Te'o apparently first became suspicious when he received a call from his dead girlfriend at an awards show (The Home Depot College Awards Show on ESPN) on December 6th. Why would he wait 20 days to inform Notre Dame? Why would Te'o go along with the story and answer questions about his dead girlfriend in January before the BCS Championship Game? Or at the Heisman Trophy ceremony? Was Notre Dame going to wait until after the championship game to unveil the hoax? Why wouldn't they be more proactive in getting in front of the story after the title game? How could they let Deadspin beat them to the punch with regards to their own internal investigation?
***What about the entire list of media outlets that never bothered to discover Lennay Kekua never existed? Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Yahoo, the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, the South Bend Tribune, dozens of others... how could all of them completely whiff on this discovery? How could none of them not even bother to check once whether or not Lennay Kekua was real? How could the Chicago Sun-Times write this poetic paragraph about Kekua's funeral?
"The sunlight touched Lennay Kekua’s face for the last time at noon eastern time two Saturdays ago.
At that moment, as her casket was closed, Manti Te’o was thousands of miles away, going through a mundane walkthrough at Notre Dame Stadium, seven-plus hours before the Michigan game kicked off."
The sunlight touched her face? Oh really? Pete Thamel at Sports Illustrated can dig trenches into Tyrann Mathieu's personal life but he never thought to follow up with Kekua or her family one time? ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski didn't think it was a red flag when he couldn't find an obituatry for the girl???? If Kekua's family didn't exist, how could Manti Te'o know to tell Wojo "the family would prefer not to be contacted." If Te'o really is a victim in this catfish scheme, that would seem to imply that even more people were involved to be Kekua's family, no? Just how elaborate was this hoax?
***Then there are the reports going around that ESPN had something on Kekua for a period of time, but didn't pull the trigger on the story. Clay Travis says it's because the network was waiting for a sitdown with Manti Te'o.
"Many will criticize ESPN in the coming days for not blowing this story up in advance of the BCS title game. And there will be many who ask: Did they slow play the story as a favor to the bigwigs at Notre Dame? I'm told that isn't the case, but I just don't understand how you wait on this story so you can get Manti Te'o on camera. How long does it take to confirm that the girlfriend doesn't exist once you get tipped off on this story? Not long, right? An investigative reporter named Mike Fish is credited on the ESPN story that links to Deadspin. Was he the only guy working on this story at ESPN?"
If ESPN had the story, it's inconceivable to me they would wait for an interview with Te'o to unveil it to the masses. With a story this explosive, what could possibly make them wait? Was it to gain even more access to Te'o? Was it to not take away attention from the BCS Championship Game? Was it to protect a relationship with the superstar linebacker? We're talking about the self-proclaimed worldwide leader here. How they could have the story of the year in their hands and not report it is certainly one of the most mystifying subplots in this entire mystery.
***Finally, there's ESPN crediting Deadspin by name for breaking the story. Even for a mystery on this grand a scale, perhaps the greatest surprise of them all. If that doesn't make you question what's up and what's down, I don't know what will.
On Day 2 of the Manti Te'o mystery, all we're left with is more questions. Questions that hopefully become pleasantly tangled with some answers.