“Maybe I sound too convinced,” ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap said at one point during his breathless 14-minute live report just after interviewing Manti Te’o for two-and-a-half hours late Friday, “but I’m just telling you the way Te’o told his story, I found him very believable.”
It may be that the only way Te’o can convince the rest of America he’s believable is to sit down one-on-one with each and every citizen, like he did with Schaap, and tell them his story from start to finish. Because out-of-context voice and text snippets from a late-night off-camera interview aren’t likely to garner Te’o sympathy for a saga so strange, so convoluted and so unrelatable to most. It may be that few ever believe Te’o to be the innocent hoax victim he claims he is, but there’s little doubt at this point that he believed it — to an almost frightening degree.
Many of Te’o's answers to Schaap’s questions were unsurprising if you’ve been following this story since Deadspin broke it Wednesday. Te’o met “Lennay Kekua” over Facebook, he said, during his freshman year at Notre Dame, and had intermittent contact after that. It escalated last year, first when she sought comfort because her father had passed away, and then further after her purported car accident in April. The made-up details Te’o told Sports Illustrated and other media about having met the fictitious Lennay Kekua? “I even knew that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn’t meet,” Te’o said, so he “tailored” his stories accordingly. So did Te’o's father, because his son had lied to him, too.
THAMEL: Manti Te’o in his own words
Others offered detail about how exactly Te’o became so close with a stranger. He and Kekua shared a “spiritual connection,” said Te’o, a devout Mormon, who exchanged scripture readings with Kekua. His mother and father formed a relationship with her, too, bonding over their shared religion. And then came the purported traumas — a car crash, coma and leukemia — that led to their all-night phone calls.
But the revelation Friday that truly defied comprehension was Te’o's stunning admission that he did not conclude for certain that Kekua was a hoax until just two days earlier — when Ronaiah Tuiasosopo confessed and apologized to Te’o via Twitter messaging. Schaap said Te’o showed him the messages. Deadspin has doubts about their authenticity. The hoaxsters apparently kept him on the hook by spinning an outrageous tale that Kekua had previously faked her death to elude a drug dealer, and, according to Schaap, by showing up at Notre Dame’s team hotel the night before the national championship game and taking a picture in the lobby.
Remember, according to the reported timelines from both Te’o and Notre Dame, Te’o first received a call from his now-undead girlfriend on Dec. 6. He informed the school on Dec. 26. Notre Dame launched an investigation that concluded on Jan. 5, two days before the title game, and told Te’o and his family the results. Even after all of that, as recently as Jan. 16 — just two hours before Deadspin revealed the hoax to the world — Te’o apparently held on to his fantasy that Kekua was real.
Even the most hopeless romantic will find it implausible that Te’o could be so madly in love with someone whom he not only never met but had been outed by people he trusts as the imaginary product of a hoax. It’s also hard to believe Te’o was ever madly in love with Kekua, given some of his other descriptions of the relationship.
Why, for instance, did he never Skype or video chat with his long-distance love? Well, he tried to, but the woman’s screen on the other end always appeared as a black box. And why did he not visit Kekua in California during her supposed two-month hospitalization in the spring and summer of 2012? “It never really crossed my mind,” Te’o said. “I don’t know. I was in school.”
Given those answers, it’s hard to believe Te’o had a PR consultant in the room with him the whole time. Wait — what am I saying? It’s hard to believe any of this ever happened. But it apparently did.
TROTTER, BANKS: Hoax’s effect on Te’o's NFL Draft status
That Te’o could emerge from the interview as an unsympathetic figure is a product of his chosen forum, because there’s now a mountain of evidence that he did get scammed by a cruel and clearly unhinged individual. Earlier Friday, ESPN’s Shelly Smith spoke on camera with a 20-something man and woman who alleged Tuiasosopo pulled the same hoax on their cousin — using the same pictures of the lovely Kekua — in 2008. Another unidentified woman said Tuiasosopo, a friend from church, confessed the whole thing to her. Meanwhile, USA Today pieced together that many of the crucial plot points of this elaborate ruse — a car crash, a young woman with leukemia, a quotation Te’o later recounted to Sports Illustrated to “give roses while you can still smell them” — mirrored actual events in the lives of Tuiasosopo and his family.
This Tuiasosopo guy is a bad dude. He did this (along with one other man and woman, Te’o said). It’s about the only conclusive detail in the whole saga.
“Te’o adamantly denies having anything to do with this,” said Schaap. “… if he’s making up his side of the story, he’s a very convincing actor.”
And yet, many will remain resolute that Te’o was a conspirator. Or that he milked the fake tragedy to gain sympathy and publicity. Or that he should have come clean a lot sooner. And that’s because there was nothing about this interview that would sway a skeptical jury.
If Te’o truly wants to clear the air, he needs to sit down in front of a camera. He needs to show emotion, and he needs to show remorse. Te’o may consider himself the wronged party, but many of his fans and followers still feel betrayed. He needs to apologize for his part in embellishing and perpetuating the myth of Kekua. That will require swapping the word “tailor” with “lie,” which is what he did.
Or it may just be that the whole thing is a lost cause at this point. Clearly, there’s never going to be a satisfactory ending. Even if Tuiasosopo goes in front of a camera and comes clean to the whole operation, there will still be conspiracy theorists who claim he’s covering for Te’o (despite the fact that they apparently never met prior to last November). Even if Te’o produces phone records of all those eight-hour calls with the fake Kekua, his critics still won’t forgive him for lying about meeting her or continuing to discuss her publicly after the first red flag was waved on Dec. 6.
But again, as I wrote earlier Friday — why all of this acrimony over a fake girlfriend?
Te’o said the saga impacted his play in the Alabama game. That’s pretty obvious. But it’s not like they’re going to replay the game. Talk will focus in the coming weeks on whether Te’o's draft stock will be affected. It’s a fair question, but then again, there will be no shortage of prospects with far more troubling character flaws than delusion and naivete.
Ultimately, the Lennay Kekua soap opera is mostly a cautionary tale for journalists and online daters that also provided twisted entertainment for almost everybody else. Some of the mystery element is disintegrating, which means the story will soon lose legs, but it’s clear the Heisman finalist and formerly beloved Fighting Irish folk hero may never restore his reputation.
He made a believer out of Jeremy Schaap. It’s going to take a whole lot more work to win over America.