Notre Dame stands by Manti Te’o, says he was ‘perfect mark’ for a hoax

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said he believes Manti Te'o was te hvictim of a hoax and he thinks just as highly of the linebacker as he always did.

Swarbrick held a media conference to discuss a Deadspin story that claimed Te'o's girlfriend Lennay Kekua, who supposedly died of leukemia in September, was made up. Notre Dame and Te'o released statements that claimed that he was the victim of a hoax. Te'o said in that statement he was a victim of "someone's sick jokes and constant lies."

[Sources: Manti Te'o's team passed on chance to control the story]

Swarbrick, calling it a "very elaborate, very sophisticated hoax," said he met with Te'o and trusts what he heard from him.

"I want to stress, as someone who has been engaged in this as anyone the past couple weeks, that nothing I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te’o one iota," Swarbrick said. "The same great young man, great student and great athlete that we have been so proud to have as a member of our family is the same guy tonight, unchanged in any way except for, as he indicated in the statement, his release, the embarrassment of being a victim in this case."

Swarbrick said Te'o's personality left him open to this hoax.

"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, that as this hoax played out in a way that called upon those tendencies of Manti, it roped him more and more into the trap," Swarbrick said. "He was not a person who would have a second thought about offering his assistance and help."

Swarbrick said Te'o received a call when he was in Orlando, Fla. for a college football awards show in early December from a number he knew to be Kekua's. The voice on the other end was the one he knew as Kekua, Swarbrick said, and the person on the other end who Te'o had known to be his girlfriend, who he thought died in September, told Te'o she was not dead.

"Manti was very unnerved by that, as you might imagine," Swarbrick said.

[Related: NFL player on Manti Te'o girlfriend: 'No, she's real']

That night Te’o won three awards – the Bednarik Award for top defensive player, the Walter Camp Foundation player of the year award and the Maxwell Award, given to the top player in the nation.

Swarbrick said the woman tried to restart the relationship after that phone call.

Te'o called Notre Dame's coaches early in the morning on Dec. 26 to tell them what happened, Swarbrick said. That's when the university started looking into the matter, including two meetings between Swarbrick and Te'o, the first of which lasted an hour and 45 minutes. Swarbrick said he was comfortable with the consistencies in Te'o's story. Swarbrick said Notre Dame hired private investigators to look into the hoax.

Swarbrick said it was exclusively an online relationship. He deferred many questions to Te'o, who he said may talk on Thursday.

"At the end of the day, this is Manti’s story to tell and we believe he should have a right to tell it, which he is going to do," Swarbrick said.

After the news broke, ESPN showed a clip of an interview of Te'o from Oct. 2 of last year, and he mentions talking to her on the phone every night, and seems to insinuate he met her.

"I'd seen the most beautiful girl I ever met, not because of her physical beauty but the beauty of her character and who she is," Te'o said in the ESPN interview. "Even though she was fighting leukemia and fighting various things, she always found time to serve someone else."

A South Bend Tribune story from Oct. 12 said he met Kekua at Stanford. (That story appears to have been taken down by the South Bend Tribune on Wednesday evening, but here it is from when it was republished in the Deseret News.)

Swarbrick said Te'o talked of "meeting" Kekua. When he followed up on that statement with Te'o, Swarbrick said that Te'o explained that he was referring to meeting her online.

"Several meetings were set up where Lennay never showed," Swarbrick said.

[Related: Where does the Manti Te'o girlfriend story rank among sports hoaxes?]

Swarbrick referred to a documentary called "Catfish," which he said reflected what happened in this case, as Te'o got fooled by a scheme.

"Every single thing about this, until that day in the first week of December, was real to Manti," Swarbrick said. "There was no suspicion it wasn’t. No belief it might not be. The pain was real. The grief was real. The affection was real. That’s the nature of this sad, cruel game."

Te'o played a few days after the supposed death of his girlfriend, and him playing in that game against Michigan State -- and the outpouring of support from his teammates, Notre Dame fans and all college football fans -- was a major storyline through last college football season.

Here's Te'o's ESPN postgame interview from right after the Michigan State game:

Swarbrick was asked if he thought Te'o bringing attention to the story was disingenuous at all. He went back to Te'o's caring personality.

"Then you don’t know Manti, that’s my answer," Swarbrick said. "Manti lives his life on his sleeve.

"The more trouble she was in –- car accident, leukemia, failing health –- the more engaged he would become, the more focused he would become."

A little more than a half hour into the press conference, Swarbrick became choked up and took a moment before continuing.

"The single most trusting human being I've ever met will never be able to trust the same away again in his life," Swarbrick said. "That's an incredible tragedy."

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