COSTA MESA, Calif. — As practice nears its end, set up shop in the sun-soaked end zone of this gorgeous, if unfamiliar, Orange County practice field and watch the Chargers and Saints walk off the field together.
Players mingle for half an hour, chopping it up with college teammates, professional contemporaries and family members close enough to see their sons pursue an NFL dream.
Watch the Chargers closely. This could have been Manti Te’o’s team.
Chargers old and young, established stars and little-known backups, make a point to stop and talk with Te’o. So do trainers, equipment managers, security guys and public-relations specialists.
Te’o, one of the nicest, most approachable linebackers in the NFL, talks to everyone, lingering in deep conversation for 10 minutes or more with a few old teammates.
“I know everybody, and they know me,” Te’o said. “It was like I had 200 teammates out there — teammates I have with the Saints, teammates I have with the Chargers.”
If a step he took in the first half of a game at Indianapolis last year had been a simple plant and release, like thousands of others he has taken, Te’o might still be wearing Chargers purple.
“When I suffered my Achilles injury, it just so happened to be during a huge season,” Te’o said. “That was my contract year; I came in in great shape. I was playing at a high level. I was a captain of my team, everything was working in my favor and then that happened. It kind of sends you down a spiral. You’re on this fall, and you’re trying to grab onto anything as you’re descending.”
Te’o has been through far more than the average NFL player.
The darling of college football during a brilliant senior season at Notre Dame in 2012, Te’o’s world was ripped apart when he found out that Lennay Kekua, the long-distance girlfriend from Stanford who he believed had been in a car accident and died of leukemia, was actually an online hoax, a “catfishing” scheme perpetrated by a man.
Three months later, the Chargers drafted Te’o in the second round, and he tried to focus on his NFL future, but the story was too big. Opponents used it as fodder for trash talk; reporters kept asking about the fallout.
“That was something I had to get over,” Te’o said. “And it lingered for years.”
On the field, Te’o’s development kept getting interrupted. A fractured foot in his first preseason game limited him to 13 games as a rookie; a stress fracture in the other foot held him to 10 the next year.
The Chargers hired Mike Nolan as linebackers coach in 2015, and Te’o started to take off. Under Nolan, Te’o turned in his best season in the NFL, racking up 83 tackles in 12 games, although a high ankle sprain cost him a quarter of a season.
The clouds finally seemed to be clearing. When the 2016 season opened, the Chargers voted Te’o a team captain, and he played like one.
“When I looked at last year’s three games, I thought he made a good jump from the year before when I coached him,” said Nolan, now linebackers coach with the Saints. “His stance and his patience, attacking the run, not over-running things, his path to the ball. All the technical things that a player wants to do to make a lot of plays.”
Then his left Achilles tendon popped.
“It was just tough seeing him not be able to be out there and be healthy,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Every year, he was really playing well, and then he couldn’t stay healthy.”
For the first hour after the injury, sitting in the Chargers’ locker room in Indianapolis, Te’o was devastated. He bounced back emotionally to get ready for surgery, then felt reality hit again in the hospital after the operation.
He felt himself drifting.
“You just ask — everybody — whenever anything like that happens, that big question: ‘Why? Why did this happen?’ ” Te’o said. “You kind of start thinking, ‘What did you do wrong?’ “
Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o, the stories said, played this season under a terrible burden. A Mormon linebacker who led his Catholic school’s football program back to glory, Te’o was whipsawed between personal tragedies along the way. In the span of six hours in September, as Sports Illustrated told it, Te’o learned first of the death of his grandmother, Annette Santiago, and then of the death of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua.
Kekua, 22 years old, had been in a serious car accident in California, and then had been diagnosed with leukemia. SI’s Pete Thamel described how Te’o would phone her in her hospital room and stay on the line with her as he slept through the night. “Her relatives told him that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice,” Thamel wrote.
Upon receiving the news of the two deaths, Te’o went out and led the Fighting Irish to a 20-3 upset of Michigan State, racking up 12 tackles. It was heartbreaking and inspirational. Te’o would appear on ESPN’s College GameDay to talk about the letters Kekua had written him during her illness. He would send a heartfelt letter to the parents of a sick child, discussing his experience with disease and grief. The South Bend Tribune wrote an article describing the young couple’s fairytale meeting—she, a Stanford student; he, a Notre Dame star—after a football game outside Palo Alto.
Did you enjoy the uplifiting story, the tale of a man who responded to adversity by becoming one of the top players of the game? If so, stop reading.
Manti Te’o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis. But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper.
Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. The Stanford registrar’s office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.
The photographs identified as Kekua—in online tributes and on TV news reports—are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman who is not named Lennay Kekua. She is not a Stanford graduate; she has not been in a severe car accident; and she does not have leukemia. And she has never met Manti Te’o.
Here is what we know about Manti Te’o: He is an exceptional football player. He’s a projected first-round NFL pick. He finished second in the Heisman voting, and he won a haul of other trophies: the Walter Camp, the Chuck Bednarik, the Butkus, the Bronko Nagurski. In each of his three seasons as a full-time starter, he racked up at least 100 tackles.
We also know that Te’o is a devout Mormon. When asked why he picked Notre Dame over Southern California, the school he had supported while growing up in Hawaii, he said he prayed on it. “Faith,” he told ESPN, “is believing in something that you most likely can’t see, but you believe to be true. You feel in your heart, and in your soul, that it’s true, but you still take that leap.”
We know, further, that Te’o adores his family. Te’o’s father said that Manti had revered his grandfather, who died in January 2012, since the day he was born. He ran his sister’s post-graduation luau. And he loved his late maternal grandmother, Annette Santiago. (Here’s her obituary.)
But that’s where the definite ends. From here, the rest of Te’o’s public story begins to grade into fantasy, in the tradition of so much of Notre Dame’s mythmaking and with the help of a compliant press.
Assembling a timeline of the Kekua-Te’o relationship is difficult. As Te’o’s celebrity swelled, so did the pile of inspirational stories about his triumph over loss. Each ensuing story seemed to add yet another wrinkle to the narrative, and details ran athwart one another. Here is the general shape of things, based on occasionally contradictory media accounts:
Nov. 28, 2009: Te’o and Kekua meet after Stanford’s 45-38 victory over Notre Dame in Palo Alto, according to the South Bend Tribune: “Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te’o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes.” Kekua, a Stanford student, swaps phone numbers with Te’o.
2010-2011: Te’o and Kekua are friends. “She was gifted in music, multi-lingual, had dreams grounded in reality and the talent to catch up to them” (South Bend Tribune). “They started out as just friends,” Te’o’s father, Brian, told the Tribune in October 2012. “Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there.”
As Kekua recovers from her injuries, doctors discover she has leukemia. She has a bone-marrow transplant. (“That was just in June,” Brian Te’o told the South Bend Tribune in October of 2012. “I remember Manti telling me later she was going to have a bone marrow transplant and, sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. From all I knew, she was doing really, really well.”)Her condition improves. Kekua “eventually” graduates from Stanford, according to the South Bend Tribune. (A New York Times story, published Oct. 13, identifies her as a “Stanford alumnus.”) She soon takes a turn for the worse. At some point, she enters treatment, apparently at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, Calif. (In a letter obtained by Fox Sports published Oct. 25, Te’o writes to the parents of a girl dying of cancer: “My girlfriend, when she was at St. Jude’s in LA, she had a little friend.”)
Te’o talks to Lennay nightly, “going to sleep while on the phone with her,” according to Sports Illustrated. “When he woke up in the morning his phone would show an eight-hour call, and he would hear Lennay breathing on the other end of the line.”