Manti Te’o played the 2012 college football season under the type of stress/duress/heartbreak that most of us cannot even fathom enduring in our private lives, let alone played out in front of millions upon millions of people on national television.
Within the same six-hour span, the heart and soul of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish was forced to learn of the deaths of both his grandmother, Annette Santiago, as well as his beloved girlfriend, Lennay Kekua. Santiago, at the age of 72, passed away of reported natural causes. However, the real heartbreaker was that of his girlfriend.
First, the Stanford student was hit by a car. While recovering from injuries that left her on the verge of death, Te’o would call her every single day. Unfortunately, months later, she was diagnosed with leukemia and eight months after the initial car accident and within hours of his grandmother’s passing, Lennay Kekua had died as well.
Deadspin chronicles the entire meeting and events of the meeting and the relationship.
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.
However, instead of taking time away from the football field, Te’o thrust everything he had into his gridiron ambitions. It was what Kekua wanted, he told reporters. That very Saturday, Te’o played the game of his life to that point, recording 12 tackles in an upset win over Michigan State.
The entire campus rallied around their great, emotionally strong yet vulnerable football captain. Te’o was featured in every major sports publication, on talk radio, on SportsCenter, and in the national news.
He had looked a double-dose of tragedy in the face, and he had not blinked. He had had his heart shattered, but his had quickly picked up the pieces and played as if his own life depended upon it.
But, according to Deadspin, Lennay Kekua’s life never depended upon it, or on Te’o, ever.
Perhaps Te’o will come forth with an explanation, and then go on to be drafted in the first round, as expected, make himself millions of dollars, and live happily ever after.
Or maybe not. Maybe he really did take the entire country for a set of fools for reasons as yet unknown.
Whatever the case, whatever happens, this story will surely rock the sports’ world as all the evidence and details unfold.