It was the saddest thing that (n)ever happened.
The love of a young college football star's life passes away after a lengthy battle with leukemia. He grieves. His entire campus grieves. The college football world celebrates his heartbreaking perseverance as he leads his team to the national championship game.
He is a hero. His girlfriend, an inspiring memory.
And all of us, played for suckers.
Of course we all now know that Lennay Kekua (or, "Lennay Kekua") never existed, that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o is history's most famous "Catfish" victim and that this whole hoax of a make-believe romance is kind of one of the weirdest love stories ever. And it all traces back to exactly one year ago today, when the fake Kekua passed away (or, "passed away"), September 12, 2012.
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It's been a pretty strange year for all those involved, real and imagined -- though some have come out of this whole mess just fine. Let's check in with the cast of college sports' most mind-bending scandal.
Manti Te'o, the victim: Yes, the victim. Clearly. Though there was some doubt at the time about his possible role in all this, it seems the only thing he's guilty of is falling in love with an imaginary woman. Not entirely inexcusable either, given the lengths to which Fake Lennay (aka, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo) went to dupe him. But for all the scorn, skepticism and late-night punchlines Te'o endured when this whole thing blew up, his NFL dreams are still fully intact. His reputation? Well, that may take a little longer.
Te'o was a second round pick in April by the San Diego Chargers, despite lots of pre-draft chatter about how the scandal may make teams leery of drafting him in the early rounds. Te'o is projected as a starter for the Chargers this season... once he's healthy enough to take the field. These days, Manti's biggest trouble is not a pretend girlfriend, but a very real foot injury, which has sidelined him since August 8.
Lennay Kekua, the fake girlfriend: Still fake dead. Though, apparently, super hot?
Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the perpetrator: Ronaiah is Lennay. Lennay is Ronaiah. Of course, this didn't seem at all possible for quite a while given how convincing the female voice on the other end of Te'o's frequent phone calls had been. There was speculation that while Tuiasosopo might have been involved in the hoax, he must have recruited some woman to actually be the voice of Lennay. But nope.
Apparently, when it comes to sounding like a girl, Tuiasosopo is a "true talent," according to voice analysts hired by the "Dr. Phil" show. They compared one of Te'o's voice mails of his non-girlfriend with the audio of Tuiasosopo doing his Lennay voice and found them to be an accurate match.
He's got "talent": Tuiasosopo does his "Lennay voice"
Tuiasosopo has kept a low profile since his interview with Dr. Phil in late January, in which he confessed to being in love with his victim. "When I looked at Lennay through Manti's eyes, I got a glimpse of who I was as far as my heart," he said. Tuiasosopo also revealed he had been molested as a child by a family friend and believes it had an impact on the decision he made to assume a fake identity.
"I felt that I couldn't do things, accomplish things, pursue things, live out as Ronaiah. And I felt the need to create this. It has everything to do with what I went through as a child." Still, Tuiasosopo said the scam went on too long and got too deep. "The truth is, I hurt every day from the decisions that I made."
Diane O'Meara, who? The face that launched a thousand phone calls. And probably a few thousand more texts. It was photos of O'Meara that Tuiasosopo passed off to represent Lennay Kekua and that would eventually be plastered all over social media, Notre Dame and multiple media outlets following the news of her death*. O'Meara and Tuiasosopo knew each other from high school, and when he requested particular photos from her under the con that they would cheer up a cousin who'd been in a car accident, O'Meara complied, completely unaware of their actual purpose.
The other victim: Woman in Te'o hoax photo shares her story
Since the scandal, O'Meara has written op-ed columns in the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Beast on a topic that she's pretty much become an expert in: Protecting your identity on social media. "Re-evaluate each of your friends often and read their timelines and posts. You may notice people you no longer want to be associated with," she advised in her Daily Beast op-ed. "Had I done this I might have unfriended Ronaiah Tuiasosopo earlier and he would have been forced to request access to my profile, which would have given me clues to his stalking." According to the Times, she is a "media executive and consumer Internet analyst and advocate based in Los Angeles."
Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick, the football guys: Notre Dame's head coach and athletic director, respectively, both defended Te'o when the Kekua hoax was exposed and the school found itself playing defense after a season of spotlighting the football star's story. "In many ways, Manti was the perfect mark because he is a guy who is so willing to believe in others and so ready to help," Swarbrick said at a January news conference. "Every single thing about this was real to Manti. There was no suspicion. The grief was real, the affection was real and that's the sad nature of this cruel game."
Kelly has stood up for Te'o's character several times and especially in the weeks before the NFL Draft, when he repeatedly said Te'o's knowledge of the hoax (before the public knew) didn't impact his play in college football's national championship game.
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This season, minus Te'o, Notre Dame is again a Top 25 team, but not considered a title contender. Back in South Bend, Kelly has tapped junior Jarrett Grace to take over Te'o's old middle linebacker spot. No longer having to answer awkward questions about a star player's fake girlfriend, Swarbrick has been an influential voice over the last few months in both phasing out college football's BCS in favor of a playoff system and in the sweeping, transformational realignment of the game's teams and power conferences.
Follow Jonathan Anker on Twitter @JonFromHLN