After Notre Dame was beaten, 42-14 by the Alabama Crimson Tide in the BCS Championship game, the draft stock of linebacker Manti Te'o took some pretty serious hits in the scouting community. Thought to be the kind-of every-down thumper with coverage skills that would propel him into the top 10 of the 2013 NFL Draft, Te'o was exposed as a decent, rangy defender with serious problems beating blocks and manning up against larger, more fundamentally sound players. Still, it was thought, Te'o's character would keep him up in the draft roll in ways that his sheer physical talent might not.
Now, with Deadspin's news that the death of Te'o's girlfriend was allegedly a hoax, NFL personnel people will have to approach the 21-year-old linebacker with a measuring stick they've never had to use before. Usually, the NFL's best scouting minds are left to deal with physical and mental attributes as they apply to the game. What are they to do with a story -- whether it was created and perpetrated by Te'o or not -- that would put him in the crosshairs of one of the biggest and strangest scandals in sports history.
In a nutshell, and per Deadspin, here's what happened: In mid-September, it was reported that Te'o's girlfriend, 22-year-old Lennay Marie Kekua, died of leukemia in September. It happened the same week that Te'o lost his grandmother, Annette Santiago. Te'o went out in his next game after the dual tragedies and amassed a season-high 12 tackles against Michigan State in a 20-3 win, leading writers all across the country to praise his strength and character.
"It was hard," Te'o said after the game. "But I had my family around me. At the end of the day, families are forever."
Here's the problem. According to the Deadspin report, there is no SSA record of a Lennay Marie Kekua, no official funeral notice in Nexus or the Stanford student newspaper. To further summarize the extent of the hoax, here's what Deadspin came up with:
Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. The Stanford registrar's office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there's no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.
The photographs identified as Kekua—in online tributes and on TV news reports—are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman who is not named Lennay Kekua. She is not a Stanford graduate; she has not been in a severe car accident; and she does not have leukemia. And she has never met Manti Te'o.
Soon after the story broke, Notre Dame Assistant Vice-President Dennis Brown released a statement via the school's football page on Facebook:
On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te’o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia. The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.
In his Wednesday afternoon statement: Te'o said that he was the victim of a cruel online hoax.
This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her.
To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.
It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother's death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life.
I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been.
In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was.
Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I'm looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft."
It's certainly worth reading the Deadspin story, and any forthcoming asides to this story, because one gets the sense that this tale is just beginning. And it's important to note, above all, that we have no earthly idea what really happened at this point.
When it comes to Te'o's draft process, however, questions from NFL teams will come thick and fast, because everyone's going to have a different side to this story. Right now, we are left with two possible options: Either Te'o was involved in this hoax, which would take his character level down to Ryan Leaf levels. Or, he was duped in a major way ... and without trying to sound cruel, that's going to cast aspersions on his in-game and off-field intelligence, not to mention the specter of potentially shady characters in his life. No team wants that, at any position, and it takes a supernatural talent to overcome those issues in the minds of most NFL teams. In addition, teams will wonder, why was Te'o quiet about this hoax if he knew of it for weeks? And finally, how will he explain, or possibly reconcile, the stories indicating that Te'o met Kekua in person?
"We look at it the same," Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider said last April of his approach to vetting "challenging" prospects before the 2012 NFL Draft. Most would agree that Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll hit that draft out of the park. "We talked about it the other day. There’s certain things that we just can’t bring into this building.”
“Every guy is treated independently," Carroll added. "We look at the situation – just like we always do – and figure the guys out. Figure where they fit in and how we can make good use of the guys as they add to the program. It’s a big concern. The whole makeup of the kid – every aspect is looked at. Our information is deep and we need to make good use of it, which we have. But every guy is treated independently.”
“There are certain things that we will not put up with, but there’s also certain things that are just college stuff that you sift through – and believe me, you sift through it," Schneider concluded.
Many teams feel this way, and one wonders how many NFL draft boards Te'o will have to climb back on entirely.
Te'o is skipping next week's Senior Bowl, which robs him of the ability to rid himself of this new cloud of suspicion sooner than later in something more organic than a press conference. When the scouting combine arrives in late February, Te'o will have serious questions to answer from every team that has him on their radar -- and judging from the potentially wide swing in his overall prospects, that could include all 32 NFL teams.
“Like most of the people that surround the Notre Dame program and all over the country, people that watched those games, I’m a little bit confused right now," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said Thursday on the network's "Around the League" show. Mayock also does color commentary for NBC's Notre Dame games.
"I have a lot of respect for Manti Te’o, I’ve gotten to know him over the last few years and at this point all I can do is what I think NFL teams are doing, which is taking a step back [and] waiting for the facts to come out. And ultimately these facts will come out. In addition to the public understanding, I also think that all 32 teams will get ample opportunity to interview this kid. How he handles this going forward is going to be critical to his future as an NFL player.”
Right now, we know that Teo's play against what is basically an NFL junior team has raised some red flags. What scouts and personnel people are left to wonder is just what this story leaves them with. Draft prospects are a gamble no matter what, but it's tough to think of too many prospects who could see their stock plummet more than Te'o's ... if he can't explain this away in a fashion that everyone finds easy to believe.
Manti Te'o 2012 Season Highlights: