Manti Te’o is an American football player who became embroiled in controversy in early 2013, when the story of his girlfriend’s tragic death was revealed to be a fabrication.
Born on January 26, 1991, in Laie, Hawaii, Manti Te'o became a star linebacker at the University of Notre Dame. During his senior year, Te'o learned that his grandmother and girlfriend died on the same day, a tragedy that became a top story of the 2012 college football season. When it was revealed that the girlfriend never existed, Te'o was left to explain how he had been deceived by an online hoax.
Manti Malietau Louis Te'o was born on January 26, 1991, in Laie, Hawaii, to parents Brian and Ottilia. The town housed a satellite campus of Brigham Young University, and Te'o was raised in a devoutly Mormon home.
Young Te'o grew quickly, overwhelming the Pop Warner football competition as a 5-foot-10, 160-pound sixth grader. He attended Honolulu's Punahou School, alma mater of President Barack Obama, where his dad served as an assistant football coach. Te'o was twice named Gatorade State High School Player of the Year, and in his senior year he lead Punahou to its first state title in its 118-year history.
Ranked the No. 1 defensive prospect in the country by ESPN, Manti Te'o was heavily recruited by most college football powerhouses. Many believed he would commit to the University of Southern California, a warm-weather school with a history of Samoan stars, but Te'o instead elected to attend the University of Notre Dame.
Manti Te'o received a limited number of starts as a freshman, but he established himself as one of the country's top linebackers as a sophomore and junior while helping to bring the storied Notre Dame program back to respectability.
Te'o bypassed the NFL Draft to return for his senior year, a decision that would profoundly affect his public profile. On September 12, 2012, Te'o found out that his grandmother had passed away; hours later, he learned that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, had also died after a battle with leukemia. The two-part tragedy became a national story, and the media had emotional narrative to weave into the chronicle of the college football season.
Seemingly inspired by Te'o's plight, the Fighting Irish alternated dominant performances with thrilling, close victories en route to a 12-0 regular-season record and the No. 1 ranking in the country. Te'o, who recorded more than 100 tackles for the third straight season to go with an incredible seven interceptions, took home a slew of defensive player of the year awards and finished second in the Heisman Trophy race.
Manti Te'o and Notre Dame disappointed in a 42-14 blowout loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship game on January 7, 2013, though it was generally considered a minor blemish on the resume of the star linebacker.
Hoax and Publicity
Nine days after the championship loss, a story surfaced that Kekua, the girlfriend who died of leukemia, never existed. Although Te'o had mentioned meeting her in past interviews, the two in fact had never met, instead maintaining their relationship via phone calls and online chats.
Te'o reportedly found out that Kekua was not real in early December, though he referred to her as his "girlfriend" in at least two interviews after that point. Notre Dame officials, made aware of the situation in late December, had kept quiet while they conducted an internal investigation.
Te'o admitted that he had lied about meeting Kekua and continued to sustain the girlfriend narrative, though he swore he had been deceived the whole time. Eventually, more evidence surfaced that a young California man named Roniah Tuiasosopo had orchestrated the hoax, fostering a phony online identity with photos from another woman's Facebook page while enlisting accomplices to portray the fictitious Kekua's friends and family. Others stepped forward to reveal that they, too, had been duped by an identical scheme, known as "catfishing," at the hands of Tuiasosopo.
It was one of the most bizarre stories to surface in the sports world in a long time, and for the young man at the center of it all, the erstwhile smooth path to NFL stardom became exponentially more twisted.
Further clouding his future, Te'o delivered a relatively slow time in the 40-yard dash before pro personnel at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. He wound up being
selected by the San Diego Chargers with the 38th overall pick of the 2013 NFL draft.
The controversy gradually fizzled as Te'o settled into his NFL career, though he struggled to remain healthy enough to contribute. He played through a stress fracture
in his right foot in his rookie season, and was sidelined for much of the following campaign with another injury to the same foot.