Manti Te'o in his own words
On Sunday, Sept. 23, I sat down with Manti Te'o for a story that was due two hours after the interview concluded and would appear on SI's cover later that week. The detail he provided me about Lennay Kekua, who he said had died 10 days earlier -- six hours after his grandmother passed away -- was staggering. He said that they met through his cousin nearly four years ago and started "dating" on Oct. 15, 2011. Te'o told me she graduated from Stanford, lived in Carson, Calif., had family roots in Hawaii and helped take over part of her dad's job in the construction business, though her passion was to work with children and she'd traveled as far as New Zealand to do so. He said she got hit by a drunk driver on April 28, 2012, discovered that she had leukemia while recovering, and received her cancer treatment at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, Calif. He never specified that he'd met her in person, and I didn't ask. Why would you ask someone if he'd actually met his girlfriend who recently died?
Last night I went through about six hours of interviews from the five days I spent at Notre Dame reporting the Te'o story. Father Paul Doyle, the rector of Dillon Hall, where Te'o lived for three years, told me, "I think I had met the girlfriend. I think she had been here visiting the year before." (He gave Te'o a prayer card that said the men of Dillon Hall were praying for his loss.) Coach Brian Kelly, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and teammates such as Theo Riddick, Robby Toma and Cierre Wood described in painstaking detail Te'o's emotions on the day he got the call in the locker room that Kekua had died. I was told by teammates and coaches that Te'o had been on the phone with her while getting his ankles taped and for weeks after her death he stayed in close communication with her supposed family.
Before I went to campus, I had conducted lengthy interviews with Brian Te'o, Manti's dad, and Dalton Hilliard, a close friend from Punahou High in Honolulu who played at UCLA. Both said they were in frequent communication with Kekua; Brian Te'o told me he had received a condolence text from her after his mother died. They also spoke on the phone at length, as he did with Lennay's brothers after her "death." Hilliard said he received frequent texts and tweets from her.
"She was a very supportive, loving passionate individual," Hillard said. "She was all about God and prayer and being able to have faith. Me and her never met in person. But I felt like this was a testament to who she was. She would still text and tweet me before my games."
He added, "It was a pleasure for me to know her. The fact she made my best friend such a happy man, it's something that made me a happy man as well."
When I arrived in South Bend, Ind., that Wednesday morning, Te'o, his team and an entire campus talked openly about mourning Kekua. I had little reason to believe that she didn't exist.
But in retrospect there were some red flags. When I checked Lexis Nexis to find out more about Kekua, I couldn't find anything, though that's not uncommon for a college-aged student. Nor was there anything on her supposed brother, Koa. I was unable to track down any obituaries or funeral notices, but that might be explained by the fact that she had three recent places she called home, or by her family not wanting publicity.
I called Mike Eubanks at Stanford to check Kekua's graduation year. Te'o wasn't sure if it was 2010 or 2011. Eubanks is an assistant athletic director for football and he coordinates on-campus recruiting visits. He knew Te'o from Stanford recruiting him in 2008 and '09 -- Stanford had gone after him hard. Eubanks, who directed Stanford's football media relations this season, couldn't find her in the alumni directory and thought it was odd that, on such a small campus, he'd never heard of a student dating Te'o. This was the most glaring sign I missed. I thought that maybe she didn't graduate, so we took any reference to Stanford out of the story.
We searched for details about the car crash. Brian Te'o told our fact checker and Manti told me that a drunk driver had hit her. We couldn't find any articles about that accident and took the drunk driving reference out. It was just a car accident.
For the interview on Sunday afternoon Te'o and I sat in the linebacker meeting room in Notre Dame's football facility and he looked straight at me as he spoke. His eyes welled up at times. The only time he didn't speak with confidence was when I asked how they met. I didn't press him, as it was clearly something he didn't want to share. I suspected they may have met online, understood he wouldn't have wanted that public and moved on.
Here's what Te'o told me that day about his relationship with Kekua, and comments from others for the story:
SI: Does the family own a construction business?
And then I remember I went to class and went to workouts and after workouts, right before I was about to come into meetings, I got a text message from her phone but it was her brother. Every time her brother texts me he just says, "Bro." I was like, "Why is her brother texting me?" Then I get a phone call from her older brother's phone. He's just crying. And immediately I felt like, "Oh my Gosh, what just happened." And then he told me, "She's gone bro."
The day I went home, that was the day they were going to pull it. They were saying their goodbyes and all that. I said, "Babe, I'm never going to say goodbye to you. If you really want to go, she really missed her dad, so I said, "If you want to go, be with dad, go. Just know that I love you very, very much." I had this very positive feeling that everything was going to be OK. I landed in Hawaii. By the time I said my goodbyes. Not my goodbyes, my I love you, I'll see you later, that kind of thing, I jumped on the airplane to go to Hawaii. They were scheduled to pull the plug while I was in the air.
So right when I landed, I was expecting to get a voicemail saying she's gone. So I landed and I had a voicemail from her brother saying, "Brother, call me back right now." So you can imagine what's going through my head. I was like, "What am I going to do? How am I going to take this?'"And so I called him back, the doctor came in and he saw something and he wants to try some treatment on her to see if it works. From there she slowly started to get better. Slowly. Eventually she came out of her coma and she started having memory problems and she couldn't remember because of the accident. That's how much damage she had to her frontal lobe. She had memory problems. I was actually the first person that she talked to. She was breathing, breathing. When I talked to her, I would say, "Babe, do you know who this is?" I knew she knew who it was because her breathing would pick up. I was like, "Relax, chill. Breathe slowly. Breathe slowly." And then, that was when she first started to speak was that conversation. I was like, "Babe, I love you. I love you." Very slightly she said, "I love you."
TEAMMATE CIERRE WOOD
DALTON HILLIARD, A HIGH SCHOOL TEAMMATE WHO PLAYED AT UCLA
The fact that she would do that for someone she never met. The fact that [Manti] and I are such great friends and brothers. Who she was and is as a person. Pleasure for me to know her. She made my best friend such a happy man, it's something that made me a happy man as well.
FATHER PAUL DOYLE, RECTOR OF MANTI'S DORM, DILLON HALL
I was surprised to hear about it on the news. No one had called me, and I'm the team chaplain for God's sakes. It was a surprise to me. You don't have to put that in the article. I was at practice two days last week. They typically practice 20 to 24 periods a day. I stay for five and stand there and watch. Last few weeks I have stood on the defensive field.
He acknowledged me. I don't want to be a distraction. He waved to me and he did last week. I had no idea what he was carrying with him at the time.
I had the other chaplain. He didn't know about it either. He said I'm watching the same thing. To lose those two people. I think I had met the girlfriend. I think she had been here visiting the year before. He might have even asked me to pray for a health condition that she had. That sounds vaguely familiar, but I know she was a beautiful person. I had no idea it was life threatening. And then she's gone.
We prayed for them Sunday night by name, as we do anyone that loses a close relative. Of course Manti wasn't there. I'm going to give him a card saying the men of Dillon Hall are praying for Mrs. Santiago and for Lennay.
MARK THESING, TEAM CHAPLIN FOR ROAD GAMES
I checked with (Jack Klunder), Director of Football Operations and we spoke back and forth. Thursday night. Friday. We made special mention of that during the mass. Unfortunately, I've been with the team a number of times with deaths. As a matter of fact, there's been three other incidents.
Anytime at Notre Dame, we bring that to faith, we bring that to prayer. I think it was important to Manti and to his teammates and being there and recognizing that this is something that we have a higher power for to deal with these issues.
BOB DIACO, NOTRE DAME DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR
I was basically with him when he got the call about his girlfriend. He was distraught, as you would imagine. And an hour later he was at practice distraught. But you know, he compartmentalized what he needed to. He wasn't focused on himself. He was focused on himself and was focused on what those people would want him to do in that moment and he was focused on his teammates and in general.
"Everyone that I love here is over there. I'm going to be with them." That's what he said to the team. Basically, he explained the tragedy that happened and explained that why he was here and why he was important that he was with them.
Everyone loves Manti. Whatever he needs. Everyone is all in. It's the culture of this team. Everyone is all in.
BRIAN KELLY, NOTRE DAME HEAD COACH
Like no circumstances that I can remember in 22 years that a young man has been hit with incredible news just before practice. And when I find out about it, and I come out of the meeting room, there's 10 players around him, sitting with him. Supporting him. I asked all the players to go back to their meetings and I sat with him and Robby Toma, his close friend. We spent a little time and I brought him up here to my office. Take your time to talk to your family in here by yourself. He did that for about an hour. I came back in and told him to take the day and hang in here and take a nap.
I need to be around the people I want to be around. I need to be at practice. If that's how you feel, you need to talk to the team and tell them why you're out here. You need to tell them why you're here. We stretched and broke them down and brought them together and Manti told the team why he was out there and how important all of them were.