The girlfriend hoax: Should Irish star be believed?

Staff reports Updated: January 17, 2013 at 12:00 am • Published: January 17, 2013

LAIE, Hawaii — People in the small Hawaii hometown of Manti Te'o are offering support for the Notre Dame linebacker, after the story of his girlfriend and her death from leukemia were revealed as a hoax.

No one answered the door Wednesday evening and no one appeared to be inside the modest, single-story wood home of Te'o's parents, Brian and Ottilia Te'o, in the small coastal town of Laie on Oahu's northern shore where Manti Te'o, an All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist, was born.

But members of the mostly Mormon community said they were dumbfounded, and didn't believe he would have knowingly perpetrated such a story. The town of about 6,000 people, roughly an hour's drive from Honolulu, is home to a small satellite campus of Hawaii's Brigham Young University,

Lokelani Kaiahua said Te'o's parents were her classmates, and she knew them to have strong family values they instilled in their children.

"I just don't see something like that being made up from him or having any part of that because they're not those kind of people," she said while sitting and talking with friends a few doors down from the Te'o family home. "Everybody's kind of like 'what is going on?'"

According to media accounts that surrounded Te'o this season, his purported girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died of leukemia in September. But on Wednesday, the website Deadspin.com posted a lengthy story saying there was no evidence that she ever existed.

Notre Dame officials then confirmed the hoax but were insistent that Te'o was only the victim.

Te'o is a hero and role model to many children in Laie and nearby small towns like Haaula, Kaaawa and Kahuku along the two-lane highway snaking through Oahu's northeastern coast.

Students at Haaula often wear Notre Dame jerseys with his number "5'' on them, and Te'o has returned to the area to talk to students about the importance of staying in school, said school administrator Makala Paakaula, 38.

"He always keeps giving back to his community," Paakaula said.

Te'o should be lauded for uniting Notre Dame during his senior year when he could have left for the NFL, she said.

"It's amazing how he brought together the whole school to become one ohana, one family, where they all belonged, where they all had a purpose," Paakaula said.

Many people expressed anger toward whoever was behind the entire affair.

"If he got hoaxed, that's not his fault — shame on them," Paakaula said, "because he has a very trusting, open heart."

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WHAT TE'O IS SAYING

"This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online," Te'o said Wednesday night in a statement. "We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her. "

However, he stopped short of saying he had ever met her in person or correcting reports that said he had, though he did on numerous occasions talk about how special the relationship was to him.

"To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating," he said. "In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was."

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GULLIBLE OR ... ?

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said at a news conference that Te'o told coaches on Dec. 26 that he had received a call from Kekua's phone number while at an awards ceremony during the first week of December.

"When he answered it, it was a person whose voice sounded like the same person he had talked to, who told him that she was, in fact, not dead. Manti was very unnerved by that, as you might imagine," Swarbrick said.

Swarbrick said the school hired investigators and their report indicated those behind the hoax were in contact with each other, discussing what they were doing.

The investigators "were able to discover online chatter among the perpetrators that was certainly the ultimate proof of this, the joy they were taking," Swarbrick said. "The casualness among themselves they were talking about what they accomplished."

Te'o asked the woman he thought was his girlfriend to converse via Skype, where he could see her online, but she always found an excuse not to, Swarbrick said.

As for Te'o being gullible, Swarbrick said the linebacker was the "perfect mark."

"He was not a person who would have a second thought about offering his assistance and help in engaging fully," Swarbrick said.

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PRO PROSPECTS

NFL draft consultant Gil Brandt believes the uncertainty surrounding Manti Te'o could affect when he is selected in April by a team.

Brandt called the story that Notre Dame's All-American linebacker was involved in a hoax "something I have never witnessed" in his half-century in pro football.

"I think some teams will say it isn't worth the problem" to draft Te'o, said Brandt, who has the linebacker rated 19th overall in the first round.

The former Dallas Cowboys general manager added Thursday that Te'o's stock had plummeted after a poor performance in the BCS championship game. Now, Te'o could fall further.

"I don't think anybody considered him to be a top-five pick before all this happened," Brandt said. "In that game against Alabama, this was like a guy who was the best shooter in the world in basketball and here comes a game and he can't even hit the backboard. His play in that game was absolutely horrible. He missed on run blitzes; guys ran over him ..."

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