Te’o drama could be a cry for help

In a feel-good story now turned terribly sour, a story filled with questions and only murky answers about the now-discovered nonexistent dead girlfriend of Notre Dame great Manti Te’o, who do you believe?

Deadspin?

Or the Fighting Irish?

Right now my money is on the former, but I truly hope I’m wrong.

Like a lot of folks, I believed in Te’o (he got my Heisman vote last month, in part, for what I thought was his backbone and character), but now I’m left wondering.

Was he just a terribly naive kid who was the victim of a cruel, spun-out-of-control Internet hoax?

That’s more or less Notre Dame’s take.

As Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Wednesday night: “I don’t want to confuse this at all. Manti Te’o was the victim of this scam.”

Or was the All-American linebacker in on the scam? That’s what the sports website Deadspin seems to think.

In a nutshell, the initial story went like this: Te’o, the Mormon of Samoan heritage who had become a legendary figure in South Bend, came back to college for his senior season so he could graduate, lead the Irish in their rise to long-lost football glory and, as it turned out, make the Heisman Trophy a two-man race with eventual winner Johnny Manziel.

Then, early in the season, Te’o seemed to truly show what he was made of when he endured both the death of his 72-year-old grandmother and his 22-year-old girlfriend in a 24-hour period.

The girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, whom Te’o supposedly had met after a 2009 Notre Dame game at Stanford where she was a student, was said to have died of leukemia.

Over the next couple of months Te’o recounted to reporters all kinds of heart-wrenching scenes from his relationship with Lennay, including how, as she lay in a coma, he’d fall asleep at night talking to her on the phone.

The story tugged at everyone’s heart.

And then, Wednesday, Deadspin published a remarkably-researched story revealing that Lennay was not real. There was no girl with that name who went to Stanford, visited Te’o in Hawaii (as Teo’s dad told The South Bend Tribune) and died of leukemia.

The whole story was a fabrication.

The question is, did someone – and Deadspin identifies the likely culprit as an acquaintance of Te’o – orchestrate the whole sick hoax, including posting bogus photos of the woman on line? And did some other woman pretend to be Lennay?

Was all that made easier because Teo’s romance was really nothing more than online chats and phone-call flirtation – all of which makes him seem like kind of a lonely sap, as well? And did he compound matters by initially exaggerating his bond with Lennay and then, when it was fueled by the media and the story became bigger than life, he couldn’t get the genie back in the bottle?

Although no one is mentioning this right now, there’s also the chance this is some kind of cry for help.

Remember back in the 2002-03 basketball season when Sammy Smith, the popular University of Dayton basketball player who was also in the school’s honors academic programs, claimed he was abducted at gunpoint outside his Stewart Street apartment?

After a series of bizarre demands by his kidnapper – who among other things told him to go back into his apartment and get bread and peanut butter – Smith said he was forced to drive almost 1,100 miles to Lake Worth, Texas. That’s where he said he escaped and flagged down a policeman, who said the UD junior was hysterical.

Turned out the whole thing was a hoax and Smith had had an emotional and mental meltdown.

Something along those lines could be a possibility with Te’o.

And then there’s the worst-case scenario – that he had an active hand in this deception, in part to make himself a more embraceable figure in his Heisman campaign.

I really hope that’s not the case, but so much of his story just doesn’t pass the smell test.

I mean, if the woman you truly loved – one your dad said he thought might end up being his daughter-in-law – died so young, wouldn’t you go to the funeral? And wouldn’t you have been at her bedside before that as she supposedly lay comatose? Is playing a football game instead – and he had a great game against Michigan State and the team afterward gave him the game ball for Lennay – that important?

Te’o said Lennay told him not to miss any games – to play in her honor – but at the time I remember thinking it sounded a little myopic on his part. And yet it fit right into that “Win one for the Gipper” lore at Notre Dame.

One troubling thing is that Te’o said he learned the story of his girlfriend was bogus in a phone call in early December but didn’t go to Notre Dame officials about it until Dec. 26. And even then, in the run up to the BCS national title game with Alabama, the school and Te’o let the story continue to be re-spun without correcting it.

Maybe Te’o was too embarrassed to say something.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, claims it believed there might be an extortion attempt or someone trying to get Te’o to break NCAA rules, so it hired an investigator to uncover what was happening.

And maybe the Irish didn’t want anything to tarnish the finally-restored luster of Golden Dome glory on the football field. If this bombshell had come out just before the title game, would the Irish focus have been derailed?

Then again, they were blown out 42-14.

It’s been a couple of weeks since the title game, but neither Te’o nor Notre Dame had corrected the matter in public. Were they hoping it would just die away?

Whatever, now the story is out and the questions are swirling.

I hope I’m wrong.

Bad as it sounds, I hope Manti Te’o was an unwitting sap, duped by cruel Internet manipulators. Those sick cowardly types – the same kind who claim Sandy Hook never happened and have victimized the grieving families and the heroes in that tragedy – are plentiful these days.

But I’d take that to the alternative. I hope Te’o wasn’t part of the scam.

I know there are plenty of bad guys out there.

But in Manti Te’o I wanted to believe we had a good guy.

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