The girlfriend that Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o lost to leukemia in September never existed.
The most inspirational story of the 2012 college football season was how Te’o played through the grief of losing his maternal grandmother and girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, within 24 hours of one another. Rather than flying back to Hawaii to mourn, Te’o played (and starred) in the Irish’s 20–3 victory over Michigan State.
While Social Security Administration records show that Annette Santiago died last Sept. 11 at the age of 72, there are no such records for a Lennay Marie Kekua. Nor is there an obituary or funeral announcement listed on Nexis. The story was first reported by Deadspin.
In fact, the photographs used in online tributes and on TV news reports are of a 22-year-old woman in Torrance, CA, who has never met Manti Te’o. She most likely became linked to Te’o through an old high school classmate who appears to be the primary perpetrator of this hoax: A former California high school quarterback named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.
Tuiasosopo, a cousin of former Washington QB Marques Tuiasosopo who counts numerous former football players among his family, is said by friends and relatives to be Lennay’s “creator.” Prior to “introducing” her to Te’o, with whom he is friends, Tuiasosopo had pranked others with Lennay.
Now, it appears that he duped Te’o or worked with him to perpetrate Lennay Kekua’s existence and death. Notre Dame released a statement after the story broke outlining how “Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia.”
Te’o released his own statement that read:
“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. 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. It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother’s death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life.”
It’s still unclear if Te’o was in on the hoax or a victim. Either way, to call this one of the saddest, most bizarre stories we have read in a long time would be an understatement.
Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports