Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick painted a picture of a trusting soul being duped by malicious perpetrators when he met with the media Wednesday night to discuss a Deadspin.com story that revealed Manti Te'o's girlfriend never existed.
In stories reported and repeated by numerous media outlets – including The Journal Gazette – this season, Te'o's grandmother, Annette Santiago, died Sept. 11 and hours later Lennay Kekua – identified as Te'o's girlfriend – died after a long battle with leukemia.
Te'o remained with the Irish for the two games after the deaths before returning home to Hawaii during the team's bye week. He also said he used the deaths of two people closest to him as inspiration as he helped lead Notre Dame to a 12-0 season and a spot in the BCS championship game, which the Irish lost 42-12 to Alabama on Jan. 7.
"Manti was the victim of that hoax," Swarbrick said. "Manti is the victim of that hoax, and he will carry that with him for a while.
"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 and roped him more and more into the trap. He was not a person who would have a second thought about offering his assistance and help in engaging fully."
The idea that the All-American linebacker was being duped began to form on Dec. 6 when Te'o was at the ESPN award show in Orlando, Fla., Swarbrick said.
Te'o received a call from a number he associated with Kekua and a woman, who sounded like Kekua, told him she was not dead, according to Swarbrick.
Swarbrick said Te'o discussed the matter with his family before informing Notre Dame coaches on Dec. 26 what was happening.
Swarbrick said the coaching staff informed him of the incident, and the AD and Te'o met Dec. 27 and 28 to review the situation. Notre Dame then hired an independent firm to investigate the situation.
Notre Dame received a report from the investigators Jan. 4, and Swarbrick shared the report with Te'o's parents, Brian and Ottilia, on Jan. 5. Swarbrick said the Te'o family was going to release the story next week, and he also said he believes Te'o will address the situation today.
Swarbrick said Notre Dame left it up to Te'o and his family of how to handle the situation when the hoax was uncovered, and that the university did not go to law enforcement because of concerns about possible extortion. He also said the were no NCAA violations because of the situation.
Swarbrick said the situation follows the guidelines of a documentary "Catfish," which also spawned an MTV show.
"It is a scam – I'm probably revealing my television watching habits, but it was covered by Dr. Phil extensively recently – that follows the exact arc of this, and it's perpetrated with shocking frequency for me shocking as an older guy who's not as versed in the online world and it is just as this one," Swarbrick said. "An initial casual engagement, a developing relationship online, a subsequent trauma traffic accident, illness and then a death.
"As hard as it is for me to get my arms around this, there's apparently some sport in doing this, in being able to do it successfully. So that was one that we sort of found this external guidebook, if you will, or platform for doing this. "
Swarbrick said that Te'o's relationship with Kekua was limited to contact online and phone conversations. That would contradict a report from the South Bend Tribune, which described a face-to-face encounter between the linebacker and young women at Stanford in 2009.
Kekua had been reported as a Stanford student, but Stanford spokeswomen Lisa Laplin said in a phone interview that there is no record of Lennay Kekua or any student with a name close to that to have attended the university. The Los Angeles County Department of Coroner said it had no record of Lennay Kekua being dead.
"As a parent of four children, it's been a really frightening experience," Swarbrick said. For people my age, this is unfathomable. Versions of this in different forms we would understand, but the sort of online social media, virtual nature of this, it's hard for us hard for me. I should speak for myself to get my arms around.
"We know, for example, that these perpetrators didn't limit themselves to Manti in the targets. So my first reaction, frankly, was as a father. You know, the way in which young people, students or student-athletes, my children, are at risk in this environment to things like this because you just don't know who you're dealing with."
Swarbrick said Te'o was never asked for money during the hoax, and the AD dismissed any notion that Te'o was part of the conspiracy to invent a girlfriend who died.
"I want to stress, as someone who has probably been as engaged in this as anyone in the past couple of weeks, that nothing about what 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 been a member of our family is the same guy tonight, unchanged in any way, except for, as he indicated in a statement in his release, the embarrassment associated with having been a victim in this case."