It was back in November, before Notre Dame played Boston College, that I made my first-ever trip to South Bend, Ind., assigned to write about star linebacker Manti Te’o.
By that time, his story was well-known, featured in everything from the South Bend Tribune to Sports Illustrated. Te’o had lost his grandmother and his girlfriend within six hours of each other in September. He had played on, helped the Irish beat Michigan State, and made a moving tribute to the girl he said he loved.
Now, suddenly, we learn that she never existed. It was mind-blowing — all the more so because I had heard it from him directly.
So I read Deadspin. I read Twitter. I watched Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick explain the college’s side of the story. I yearned to hear from Te’o. And I couldn’t help but think about my role in all of this, as yet another complicit reporter who retold Te’o’s tale.
When I was at Notre Dame, I spoke with Te’o in the presence of other reporters, starting with a general question about his year — the highs and the lows — not specifically mentioning Lennay Kekua.
He called it “bittersweet,” and said, “Somebody told me once the hardest thing about goodbyes is when you wake up in the morning you have to say it again when you realize that they’re not there. So every morning when I wake up and my girlfriend is not on the phone, it reminds me that she’s gone.”
I heard emotion in those words. They didn’t feel like another cliché about loss or love. Those words spoke to anyone who missed someone, anyone who had suffered through a death.
Manti’s father, Brian, lives in Hawaii, so we spoke on the phone. Like his son, he was open and willing to share the difficult year his family had experienced, and I heard genuine feeling.
“I could see in his eyes the stress, could see in his eyes the heartache, and I just got overwhelmed with this immense pride that he could actually find the capacity to set his own personal suffering aside to lead a group that really meant a lot to him,” Brian said.
Because Te’o didn’t go to his girlfriend’s funeral. He said he sent flowers, and he played instead. He marked the time the casket supposedly closed.
Perhaps that should have made me question the story. But I didn’t. I took Manti and Brian at face value. I believed them. Because, really, why would they lie? What did it get them?
Two months later, I’m confused. I feel duped, burned by a story that was too good to be true. Was that emotion I heard all fake? Was it manufactured? And to what end?
I can’t quite square with the idea that Te’o was entirely the victim of a hoax, that he considered a woman his girlfriend even though he had never met her, never chatted with her on Skype, never gone to visit. That doesn’t make sense to me. But neither does the idea that he was in on it the whole time.
So now I wonder. How much did he know? When did he know it? Why would someone do this to him? Or, conversely, why would he do this to all of us?
I thought I had asked all my questions of Te’o back in November. But now I just regret not asking so many more.