On Dec. 6, Notre Dame officials said, Manti Te’o received an alarming phone call: His dead girlfriend, whose loss had inspired him during what had become a triumphant year for the Irish, might still be alive. Either that or Te’o, a gifted linebacker with a reputation for trusting others, had been the victim of a hoax, and the woman he thought he had come to know online and through long, emotional phone calls had never really existed.
Te’o, a Notre Dame official said this week, was badly shaken by the call.
Nonetheless, two days later, on Dec. 8, at the Heisman Trophy ceremony, the star Notre Dame linebacker was asked about his most unforgettable moment of the season.
Te’o, clearly aware of questions surrounding his girlfriend’s death, responded with little hesitation: The memory he’d never forget from the 2012 season was the moment he’d learned his girlfriend was dead.
That sequence of events in December was one of many being pored over Thursday — by journalists and bloggers, students at Notre Dame and an American public trying to figure out the truth at the heart of one of the more bizarre of sports stories.
Was Te’o a sympathetic victim of a cruel scam or a calculating participant in a phony story that had been milked to aid in his bid for the Heisman Trophy?
The series of events in early December, though, like so much else that has emerged about Te’o and his girlfriend in the past 48 hours, is hardly conclusive. Te’o, in giving the interview Dec. 8, quite possibly was nothing more than a frightened and confused young man, unsure himself of what was going on or what to say.
On Thursday, a day of little clarity and deepening mystery, Notre Dame stuck by its official version: Te’o was the target of a meanspirited and vicious hoax, a scam that the school’s own hired investigators had determined involved a vast cast of characters all engaged in an effort to humiliate a humble, private and perhaps somewhat naive young man in the public spotlight.
Te’o, for his part, did not speak. His agent did not offer a statement, and a rumored interview on national television never occurred. His agent told The Associated Press that he has been in Bradenton, Fla., training at the IMG Academy in preparation for the NFL draft.
One thing in the odd, evolving drama did seem to become clearer: As far back as early December, there were some people in the Twitter world who were beginning to sound alarms about the authenticity of Te’o’s inspirational story.
Those people online maintained openly that they believed Te’o had been duped, with some pointing to a California man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo as the architect of the scheme. They even joked about the embarrassment and absurdity of the fake story line as Notre Dame prepared to play in the national championship game against Alabama.
On Dec. 5, one Tweet was sent to The New ND Nation, with 7,000 followers, saying it “needs to know the truth" about Te’o’s alleged girlfriend.
A blogger, Justin Megahan, collected a number of the tweets in one blog post and titled it, “Catfished," in honor of the 2010 film where a woman creates a fake online persona to strike up a relationship.
The alarms online, such as they were, never seemed to gain wider attention. Perhaps because, at the time, it seemed like an unlikely possibility.
Even a month and a half later — and after Deadspin.com first reported on the hoax Wednesday — figuring out where exactly the truth lies continued to be challenging.
The particulars of the seemingly powerful Te’o narrative had emerged in the fall and been repeated in news accounts over months: Te’o’s girlfriend had died of leukemia in September, around the same time he had lost his beloved grandmother; but Te’o, a team leader and Mormon, had played on, and played spectacularly. The dual deaths were tragic, but Te’o’s resolve was admirable.
Now, however, every aspect of that narrative is under scrutiny. The Associated Press said it had done a comprehensive review of articles about Te’o and his girlfriend, seeking evidence that might exonerate or implicate him. Nothing conclusive was found.
Sports Illustrated had published a cover story on Te’o in an October issue, an article that included details of the relationship and the woman’s final days. On Thursday, the magazine offered an accounting of its reporting, including a full transcript of a lengthy interview with Te’o.
During the interview, Te’o spoke of a relationship going back years, but one that became “official" on Oct. 15, 2011. He said it was a relationship that mostly existed on the phone. In one moment during the interview, he said his girlfriend had seen him at a game during his during his sophomore year, when they were just acquaintances.
Again, it is far from clear whether in the interview Te’o was perpetuating a scam or accurately, if awkwardly relating the details of what had been exclusively an online relationship, one he was perhaps embarrassed was nothing more than that given all the attention it had received.
Closer to Notre Dame’s home base, the South Bend Tribune was explaining a story it published in October that included the details that Te’o had met the girlfriend in person in 2009.
The Tribune on Thursday reported that Te’o’s father, Brian Te’o, had told the paper that the couple met more than once, an assertion that now appears inconsistent with statements made by Te’o and the university.
For some people versed in the often bawdy world of big-time college football, the idea that a star athlete like Te’o could be involved in an online relationship that went on for years — without in-person meetings — seems implausible. Others, younger and more familiar with the appeal of online relationships, and perhaps more aware of the scams that can be perpetrated, find him an all too believable victim.