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Manti Teo’s fake girlfriend, and how we missed it

There are no secrets on the Internet.

Manti Te’o begs to differ.

And I, for one, am on his side.

I do not like Notre Dame for many, many reasons, but I hope that Manti Te’o comes out today for his press conference and stares at the sea of reporters, all salivating over a chance to tear Notre Dame’s fallen star to shreds, and tells them to shove it.

I hope that before they get to lay into him and spin him in circles with their questions about Lennay Kekua and how he possibly could have been duped into such an incredible story and how he could have perpetuated this myth and how he could possibly not have anything to do with the hoax — before all of that — I hope he asks the media assembled in front of him why they did not do their due diligence to help him out.

Because that should just about shut everyone in that room up. Because they all missed it. And I missed it. And the world of journalism missed it.

For that I am sorry, and for that Manti Te’o should really be upset. Imagine the shame and misery and pain we could have saved him if we had just told him, “hey, Lennay Kekua didn’t die because she never existed.”

It would have been quicker, easier, and maybe then he wouldn’t have been a Hesiman candidate, because the voters wouldn’t have been able to fall back on the hype and the “intangibles” and the “heart” that he showed in preserving through such a tough season.

And at the very least, we would have preserved the memory and passing of Teo’s grandmother, who beneath all the layers of hoax did in fact die a few days before Notre Dame played Michigan State.

Instead we are left with a mess bigger than what I imagine happened after Azia Kim was discovered hiding in the lounge at Okada.

And personally, I am left to wonder exactly how I could possibly have missed this story. Because I should have been the one to tell this story, or perhaps Sam Fisher, or Joey Beyda, or George Chen or Billy Gallagher or even maybe Brendan O’Byrne.

Not a senior at Columbia who works for Deadspin. Me. Here’s why I’m still not famous….

In every story you will ever see about this hoax, Lennay Kekua will forever be remembered as a former Stanford student who met Te’o on the field, near the field, in the stands, at a club, by the team bus — well, no one is sure where it allegedly took place if it even was a physical meeting and not just a message via Twitter.

In any case, Kekua will be remembered as a Stanford student who was in a tragic car accident, then found out she had leukemia and underwent cancer treatment all while maintaining a relationship with Te’o.

It was an incredible story, the kind that movies are made out of, especially when the Notre Dame star linebacker who wore his heart on his sleeve lost both Kekua and his grandmother in supposedly a six-hour window just days before taking on Michigan State.

You can watch the Youtube video of Te’o being interviewed after the game, where he is very emotional and clearly pained as he discusses his loss. ESPN picked it up and put it into the hypemachine, in a major, almost-worthy-of-TimTebow way.

And as the season went on and Notre Dame kept winning, Te’o’s story became even bigger and better.

Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel took the mantle of chief Te’o trumpeter when he wrote a cover story for the magazine in October. In it, Thamel reported the precise date of Kekua’s supposedly almost-deadly car accident (April 28) and stated that her “relatives told [Te’o] that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice.”

He went on to sound Te’o’s praises again in December when he explained that Kekua wrote Te’o a series of inspirational notes before her passing, and that her brother Kainoa and sister U’ilani “would read the letters to Manti” to help soothe his pain. “It’s given me a sense of strength and perseverance,” the Heisman Trophy finalist told the Thamel.

Except that it Kainoa and U’ilani can’t exist either… not the point, ok let’s refocus.

In none of all of that major coverage of Te’o and Kekua, however, did any reporter mention that this girl had supposedly attended Stanford. Oh, how I wish they had, because if anybody on my sports staff had caught a sniff of Lennay Kekua, Stanford student and told me, I would have lost my mind.

Sure it’s easier to say this in hindsight, but there is no chance that I don’t have an inkling of a girl that was in a major car accident, then has leukemia, and all the while is the girlfriend of a major star in Manti Te’o. No way.

I would have been writing that story when Te’o played Stanford, like every year. It would have been a good angle in 2010, and in 2011 and in 2012. But the only outlet to report it apparently was the South Bend Tribune, which has very conveniently pulled that story from its web site. Very clearly in a story from October 12, The Tribune wrote that “Kekua, who eventually graduated from Stanford, was, in fact, doing so well that she was released from the hospital on Sept. 10.”

The New York Times also identified her as a “Stanford graduate” in a story the day after, so I guess that was my best chance to call baloney and I didn’t read it. But I also feel no one else on campus did either, because I would have expected any of you to also be suspicious that this Stanford grad wouldn’t have friends, a vigil, a million RIP Facebook posts, something.

Which is no excuse for the media’s mishandling of the situation. Maybe the Tribune made that part up or ran with it with no sources and only a faint rumor. I don’t know, I’d never willingly go to their site in my life.

Which is why I accept your criticism, and I welcome it because you are right to be disappointed with us at this time.

Don’t accept ESPN columnist Gene Wojciechowski’s lame response that he couldn’t find an obituary for Lennay Kekua and couldn’t find any records about a car accident and ignored the obvious red flags because essentially Te’o told him to back off.

“And so in that instance, and at that moment, you simply think that you have to respect those wishes,” said Wojciechowski. “Short of asking to see a death certificate, I’m not sure what most people would do differently in that case.”

We should have done better, because as any journalist knows, there are always secrets on the Internet and it’s always our job to find them.

Miles Bennett-Smith is President of Stanford’s student catfishing group. To make a donation or learn where to attend the next virtual meeting, you can email Miles at milesbs@stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @Smilesbsmith.

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