The story of Manti Te'o and his fake, dead girlfriend has been a spectacular soap opera, a real-time mystery and truth-stranger-than-fiction tale that turned the Notre Dame linebacker's personal life into a national punch line.
It was never going to be as black and white as some wanted it though. Things rarely are.
Increasingly, the reasonable conclusion of exactly what (and how) this bizarre story unfolded is falling into a less nefarious, more humbling conclusion – the one that always seemed the most plausible, if also least thrilling, all along.
Manti Te'o insisted Friday to ESPN that he didn't help hatch the plan to create Lennay Kekua only to pretend she was the love of his life so he could tragically kill her off for publicity purposes that could propel him to a Heisman Trophy.
That was the way part of Deadspin.com's original report on the hoax framed Te'o's involvement, although that was mostly drawn from a single unnamed source who claimed he was "80 percent sure" that Te'o was "in on it."
"No," Te'o told reporter Jeremy Schaap in a 2½-hour off-camera interview in Florida, where he is training for the NFL draft. "Never. I wasn't faking it. I wasn't part of it."
[Related: Manti Te'o denies involvement in hoax]
This jibes with the conclusion Notre Dame reached in early January, after the school hired private investigators to look into the situation. That investigation was anything but thorough, according to a Sunday report in the South Bend Tribune, and less than the school initially implied. That said, the school insists it found no indication Te'o was in on the hoax.
"Manti Te'o is the victim of this scam," Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Wednesday.
And at this point, while doubters, critics and those who are particularly troubled by the conduct of an emotive college kid they've never met will undoubtedly remain convinced to the contrary, it's the most believable scenario. No one has produced any evidence to suggest Te'o was in on it. None.
The person most capable of changing that is Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who Notre Dame, among others, has fingered as the perpetrator of the hoax and thus someone with direct knowledge of how it went down. Tuiasosopo has remained hidden and silent, though, as stories of past similar conduct have emerged.
Tuiasosopo did, according to ESPN, send direct messages to Te'o over Twitter on Wednesday. The messages acknowledged Tuiasosopo's role in running the scam, and he apologized to Te'o for it. Te'o allowed ESPN to read the messages. Te'o also claimed he spoke to Tuiasosopo on the phone Wednesday. If Tuiasosopo wants to dispute this or accuse Te'o directly, we're eager to hear it.
So until someone comes up with something else, this is where the case stands. Te'o didn't start it.
That is not, in any way, a complete exoneration for the player or the Notre Dame program.
[Related: Manti Te'o's interview raises more questions]
Te'o lied about his girlfriend – to his family, his teammates and the media. He said they met face-to-face. He said she visited Hawaii. He detailed how they met. He came up with things that simply weren't true, because they couldn't be true even as the story of the dead girlfriend snowballed through the Fighting Irish's unbeaten regular season.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame was so desperate to keep its star linebacker focused on winning the BCS national title game – the Irish were blown out by Alabama anyway – that it let a positive story it knew wasn't true get repeated and repeated in the buildup to the game. Better to stay silent than risk the humiliation rattling Teo's game, even though it may have anyway.
So no one is saying Te'o or the Irish are fully innocent. Not even close.
That said, for Te'o, there is a significant difference between lying about the details of a college girlfriend and plotting an elaborate charade. Neither is ideal. One is far more troubling, though.
To have hatched the plan is pure scoundrel, the act of a cold con man. Being too embarrassed to admit to your dad that you haven't actually met this girl you've fallen for is borne from a far more understandable motivation.
Manti Te'o isn't the first, or last, college kid who wasn't all that honest when describing a new relationship to his parents and friends. Really, Mom, we met at the library, definitely not at 3 a.m. in the basement of a fraternity party.
It's just in this case, Manti's dad, Brian Te'o began relaying these untruths to reporters who began telling stories of how Manti and Lennay met or how Lennay would visit or what Lennay looked like. Then more reporters told more stories and never checked to see if she even existed.
This was a small private lie that grew into a massive public one. Manti added fuel by "tailor[ing] his stories" to the media. In the end, he never got himself out of it.
[Related: Does Manti Te'o have a real girlfriend?]
Based on Teo's various interviews and even his comments Friday, it's difficult to envision he was savvy enough to have ever figured out how to stop it if he wanted.
The guy is gullible. He's naïve. He's trusting in ways that nearly defy belief, almost wide-eyed in wonder at all sorts of things in life.
Te'o incredibly told Schaap he wasn't truly, 100 percent certain that Lennay never existed until Tuiasosopo admitted the hoax on Wednesday.
Mind you, this was after she tried to come back into his life in December, claiming she faked her death to avoid drug dealers. It was after, Te'o, finally wary of something, told his parents, coaches and administrators about the hoax. It was after Notre Dame ran a 10-day investigation proving it was all a fraud and gave the findings to Te'o to read.
It was even after Deadspin blew the whole thing into one of the wildest stories ever told and no girlfriend jumped up to say, wait, you're wrong.
Impossible to believe? Perhaps. Except for everything else about this story that was impossible to believe.
Te'o offered additional details to ESPN Friday about the timeline of the relationship that bolster his story. Not a surprise, but still.
[Report: Ronaiah Tuiasosopo confessed to hoax]
Most notably Te'o dismissed the reports that he and Lennay were together for years. He said while they had contact over social media since 2010, and retroactively declared November 2011 as an "anniversary," the relationship didn't become truly close until mid-May, when she supposedly awoke from a coma that had resulted from injuries she supposedly suffered in a vicious Los Angeles car wreck involving a drunk driver. Then they were in daily contact.
So the hoax went full bore for about four months, until her "death" in September. This was an elaborate and involved routine, requiring so many hours and so many angles. Te'o said two men and a woman ran it. Four months, however, is more believable than three years.
Yes, it's strange he never went to see her, but as he told Schaap: "It never really crossed my mind. I don't know. I was in school."
And, yes, he should've been suspicious when, as he told ESPN, she declined to Skype. And of course, it's ridiculous to think he couldn't see the warning signs of such a fabulous story – did anyone ever have a wilder 2012 than Lennay, which included a massive car wreck, a coma, two flat-lining episodes, a full recovery, a leukemia diagnosis, a bone-marrow transplant and finally a sudden death, which she later claimed was staged to avoid murderous drug dealers?
And Manti wanted to be in a relationship with someone like that?
Yet, until there's any proof to the contrary – other than one guy being "80 percent" sure – that's what you have.
It's worth remembering that Te'o is prone to drama. Sources at Notre Dame describe a loveable, but highly emotional character. He is said to be a particularly devout Mormon from a sheltered upbringing who has a personality that seeks the finest in everyone he meets.
His speeches, his interviews, his sideline antics and his propensity to tear up at any moment are unusual for any young man, especially a football player. It's not just the inflection in his voice – part preacher/part overwhelmed parishioner – it's also the content it delivers.
Te'o routinely cited the Lord's work in his tackles and feelings that drove various life decisions. He could quickly, in mid-conversation, morph into a Romeo and Juliet-level soliloquy about the inner beauty of Lennay or the depth of his loss; all concerning a girlfriend, it's worth repeating, of about four months that he never actually saw in person.
You can see where it got him in so deep, so quickly that he either thought he couldn't or simply didn't want to try to clarify the details. He just went with the lie.
What was the motivation to correct the small details anyway? If Te'o thought she was real, who was he hurting? Who was going to find out they never actually met in person?
[Related: Woman in fake girlfriend photos identified]
At that point he was being hailed as a shining example of integrity and faith and courage and all that was great about God, America and Notre Dame football, which, to some, is all the same thing. The story was working great for him. He must've felt bulletproof.
In the middle of that, why take the embarrassment of acknowledging the relationship was just an online thing, which, even in this day and age, carries a stigma? Let alone, why would he admit he'd been lying?
Even after he received a call in early December from Lennay trying to claim she was still alive, he just carried on with the legend.
And while it isn't a particularly good look, especially for a man who wears religion on his sleeve, it fits with his personality.
Even after the BCS disaster, when Notre Dame sources claim they encouraged Te'o to come forward, he instead tried to ride it out, perhaps naively thinking investigators for NFL teams – let alone years of pro sports media – weren't going to blow this open.
Even now, after he became the center of a story of incalculable attention, he refused to go on TV and just own it, laugh at his foolishness and then sign an eHarmony endorsement.
Instead, he went off camera. He trusts everyone will believe him. Schaap said Te'o was hoping this would just blow over so he could move on.
Really? A story this big is just going to blow over?
Here's the thing though, it might. If Te'o and Notre Dame are both telling the truth, a truth that is explainable and understandable, and nary a shred of evidence to the contrary arises, there really isn't so much more to go on here.
This is an embarrassment for Te'o. This is proof he told some untruths and isn't infallible. But there are no crimes committed. Lying to the media is an industry, not a prosecuting offense. Some oversensitive football fans will never forgive him for whatever the heck he did to them, but how long can that anger carry the news?
In the end, Manti Te'o may have simply lived a particularly amazing version of a very old tale – a young kid that love turned into a damn fool.
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