In sports, actions speak louder than words. It is nearly impossible to evaluate Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o on the tangled web of words he has provided about a girlfriend, a woman he called the love of his life, who never existed.
What is real about Te’o, what put him in the Heisman Trophy race and helped Notre Dame regain relevance, is his playing ability. Tackles, interceptions, instinctive displays of brilliance, those can’t be faked or fabricated with Twitter posts and Facebook photos. They’re real.
We’re used to athletes being embroiled in embarrassing public scandals. Tales of infidelity, criminal activity, and performance-enhancing drug use are familiar athletic imbroglios. See: Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, and Lance Armstrong. But Te’o’s faux-mance with Lennay Kekua, a woman now said to be created by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo as part of an intricate online and telephone hoax, is one of the most bizarre and confounding sports stories in recent memory.
It is hard to know whom to believe or what to believe. Either Te’o possesses a naivete that rivals his tackling ability and was lured into an elaborate romantic ruse, or the Notre Dame golden boy perpetrated a grand fraud of his own, perpetuating the sob story of the fictitious Kekua’s death from leukemia in September, just hours after Te’o’s grandmother died.
The truth may lie somewhere in between. Te’o could be both the victim of a cruel hoax and a liar. There are half-truths.
Teo’s girlfriend was fake, but there was nothing artificial or fabricated about his stellar play. That, no Kekua, is what garnered him Heisman Trophy consideration.
The notion that Te’o got more Heisman votes because of this story is as mendacious as any tale spun by the Notre Dame linebacker or his alleged online manipulator.
This isn’t Armstrong using performance-enhancing drugs to hijack seven Tour de France titles or Barry Bonds inflating himself with PEDs to inflate his place in baseball history.
It’s a BMOC potentially lying about his love life, exaggerating the details of a relationship. That has never happened, right?
The idea that no one would have paid attention to a dominant defensive player at Notre Dame, the Broadway stage of college football, if he didn’t have a deceased girlfriend is patently absurd.
Te’o was the best defensive player in the country on a Notre Dame team that woke up the echoes of the Golden Domers’ past glory with a 12-0 regular season.
If any of the 321 Heisman voters who selected Te’o first on their ballot did it because of sympathy, they should be stripped of their vote posthaste.
Te’o’s second-place finish in the Heisman balloting behind Texas A&M phenom Johnny Manziel wasn’t college football’s condolence card to him. It was a validation of the fact that Te’o, like the waves from his native Hawaii, relentlessly pounded anything in his path and washed away the best-laid plans week after week.
Te’o, who made 113 tackles this year, was on the radar of college football aficionados long before anyone knew who Kekua was, or, in this case, never was. He could have left South Bend, Ind., after his junior year and been a first-round pick in the NFL.
This past season, Te’o led all FBS linebackers in interceptions with seven, a total that tied for the most by an FBS linebacker in a season since 2001. He tied for second overall in the country in interceptions. No player in major college football collected more turnovers than Te’o, who also recovered two fumbles.
He was the emotional, spiritual, and physical leader of a unit that went into the BCS national title game against Alabama as the top defense in the country at 10.3 points per game and had allowed only two rushing touchdowns all season before being steamrolled by the Tide, 42-14.
The charge that it was pity or empathy for Te’o that drove his Heisman Trophy candidacy is as fake as his girlfriend.
When the results were announced, I felt that Te’o should have won the Stiff-arm Statue but had been victimized by the award’s perpetual discrimination against defensive players.
What is clear is that Te’o embellished and fabricated details of his relationship with the nonexistent Kekua.
He is to some degree the Lyin’ Hawaiian. To what degree and why is the nebulous essence of this story.
He told Sports Illustrated in September that Kekua came to a game against USC in his sophomore year. He had never met her.
His father, Brian, told the South Bend Tribune in October that Te’o and Kekua had met at a 2009 game at Stanford, where the fictitious Kekua went to college.
Te’o’s explanations for having never met or seen Kekua strain credulity.
Last week, Te’o did an on-camera interview with Katie Couric and parsed words when asked if he had lied about his relationship with Kekua, the Sidd Finch of athlete paramours.
“I wasn’t as forthcoming about it. But I didn’t lie,” Te’o told Couric. “I never was asked, ‘Did you see in her in person?’ And so through the embarrassment and the fear of what people would think, that I was committed to this person who I didn’t have the chance to meet, and she all of a sudden died, that scared me. To avoid any further conversation, I wasn’t as forthcoming as I should have been.”
The question he’ll have to answer for NFL teams is, why?
They will grill him much closer than Couric did.
But there is no question about Te’o’s ability on the field. It’s real.
On the field, Te’o is the truth, whether he’s telling the truth off it or not.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.