Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, the stories said, played this season under a terrible burden. A Mormon linebacker who led his Catholic school's football program back to glory, Te'o was whipsawed between personal tragedies along the way. In the span of six hours in September, as Sports Illustrated told it, Te'o learned first of the death of his grandmother, Annette Santiago, and then of the death of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua.
Kekua, 22 years old, had been in a serious car accident in California, and then had been diagnosed with leukemia. SI's Pete Thamel described how Te'o would phone her in her hospital room and stay on the line with her as he slept through the night. "Her relatives told him that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice," Thamel wrote.
Upon receiving the news of the two deaths, Te'o went out and led the Fighting Irish to a 20-3 upset of Michigan State, racking up 12 tackles. It was heartbreaking and inspirational. Te'o would appear on ESPN's College GameDay to talk about the letters Kekua had written him during her illness. He would send a heartfelt letter to the parents of a sick child, discussing his experience with disease and grief. The South Bend Tribune wrote an article describing the young couple's fairytale meeting—she, a Stanford student; he, a Notre Dame star—after a football game outside Palo Alto.
Did you enjoy the uplifiting story, the tale of a man who responded to adversity by becoming one of the top players of the game? If so, stop reading.
Manti Te'o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis. But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper.
Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. The Stanford registrar's office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there's no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.
The photographs identified as Kekua—in online tributes and on TV news reports—are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman who is not named Lennay Kekua. She is not a Stanford graduate; she has not been in a severe car accident; and she does not have leukemia. And she has never met Manti Te'o.
Here is what we know about Manti Te'o: He is an exceptional football player. He's a projected first-round NFL pick. He finished second in the Heisman voting, and he won a haul of other trophies: the Walter Camp, the Chuck Bednarik, the Butkus, the Bronko Nagurski. In each of his three seasons as a full-time starter, he racked up at least 100 tackles.
We also know that Te'o is a devout Mormon. When asked why he picked Notre Dame over Southern California, the school he had supported while growing up in Hawaii, he said he prayed on it. "Faith," he told ESPN, "is believing in something that you most likely can't see, but you believe to be true. You feel in your heart, and in your soul, that it's true, but you still take that leap."
We know, further, that Te'o adores his family. Te'o's father said that Manti had revered his grandfather, who died in January 2012, since the day he was born. He ran his sister's post-graduation luau. And he loved his late maternal grandmother, Annette Santiago. (Here's her obituary.)
But that's where the definite ends. From here, the rest of Te'o's public story begins to grade into fantasy, in the tradition of so much of Notre Dame's mythmaking and with the help of a compliant press.
Assembling a timeline of the Kekua-Te'o relationship is difficult. As Te'o's celebrity swelled, so did the pile of inspirational stories about his triumph over loss. Each ensuing story seemed to add yet another wrinkle to the narrative, and details ran athwart one another. Here is the general shape of things, based on occasionally contradictory media accounts:
Nov. 28, 2009: Te'o and Kekua meet after Stanford's 45-38 victory over Notre Dame in Palo Alto, according to the South Bend Tribune: "Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te'o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes." Kekua, a Stanford student, swaps phone numbers with Te'o.
2010-2011: Te'o and Kekua are friends. "She was gifted in music, multi-lingual, had dreams grounded in reality and the talent to catch up to them" (South Bend Tribune). "They started out as just friends," Te'o's father, Brian, told the Tribune in October 2012. "Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there."
Early 2012: Te'o and Kekua become a couple. They talk on the phone nightly, according to ESPN.
Some time in 2012: Kekua has a car accident somewhere in California that leaves her "on the brink of death" (Sports Illustrated). But when? Eight months before she died of cancer, in September, reports ESPN. "About the time Kekua and Manti became a couple," reports the South Bend Tribune. April 28, reports SI.
June 2012: As Kekua recovers from her injuries, doctors discover she has leukemia. She has a bone-marrow transplant. ("That was just in June," Brian Te'o told the South Bend Tribune in October of 2012. "I remember Manti telling me later she was going to have a bone marrow transplant and, sure enough, that's exactly what happened. From all I knew, she was doing really, really well.")
Summer 2012: Her condition improves. Kekua "eventually" graduates from Stanford, according to the South Bend Tribune. (A New York Times story, published Oct. 13, identifies her as a "Stanford alumnus.") She soon takes a turn for the worse. At some point, she enters treatment, apparently at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, Calif. (In a letter obtained by Fox Sports published Oct. 25, Te'o writes to the parents of a girl dying of cancer: "My girlfriend, when she was at St. Jude's in LA, she had a little friend.")
Te'o talks to Lennay nightly, "going to sleep while on the phone with her," according to Sports Illustrated. "When he woke up in the morning his phone would show an eight-hour call, and he would hear Lennay breathing on the other end of the line."
Sept. 10, 2012: Kekua is released from the hospital; Manti's father, Brian, congratulates her "via telephone" (South Bend Tribune).
Sept. 11-12, 2012: Te'o's grandmother dies in Hawaii. Later, Kekua dies in California. Or is it the other way around? "Te'o's girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died Sept. 11 of complications from leukemia. His grandma, Annette Santiago, died after a long illness less than 24 hours later," according to the Sept. 22 South Bend Tribune. No, Annette dies first, according to the Oct. 12 South Bend Tribune. In fact, Lennay lives long enough to express condolences over the death of Annette:
Less than 48 hours later [after Lennay's release from the hospital], at 4 a.m. Hawaii time, Kekua sent a text to Brian and Ottilia, expressing her condolences over the passing of Ottilia's mom, Annette Santiago, just hours before.
Brian awakened three hours later, saw the text, and sent one back. There was no response. A couple of hours later, Manti called his parents, his heart in pieces.
Lennay Kekua had died.
In any case, according to Te'o's interview with Gene Wojciechowski in a segment aired during the Oct. 6 episode of College GameDay, Lennay's last words to Te'o were "I love you."
Sept. 12, 2012 (morning): Te'o is informed of his grandmother's passing (Sports Illustrated).
Sept. 12, 2012 (afternoon): Te'o is informed of Kekua's passing by her older brother, Koa (Sports Illustrated).
Sept. 15, 2012: Te'o records 12 tackles in leading the Irish to an upset win over Michigan State.
Sept. 22, 2012: Kekua's funeral takes place in Carson, Calif. (The Associated Press puts it in "Carson City, Calif.," which does not exist.) Te'o skips the funeral, saying Kekua had insisted that he not miss a game (Los Angeles Times). Her casket is closed at 9 a.m. Pacific time, according to Te'o. That night, Notre Dame beats Michigan, 13-6, to go to 4-0, the school's best start in a decade. Te'o intercepts two passes. After the game, he says of Lennay: "All she wanted was some white roses. So I sent her roses and sent her two picks along with that." Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly awards the game ball to Lennay Kekua, handing it to Te'o to "take back to Hawaii."