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January 17, 2013

Tim Prister's Point After

Irish Illustrated Editors Column

"Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent."

He loved her because she talked his language.

She would tell him to maintain his humility amidst his rising fame. She would talk about faith and putting God and others first.

Lennay Kekua, or at least the young woman who portrayed her to Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, said all the right things, pressed all of the right buttons, knew the way inside.

There are many ways to a man's heart. The way to Manti Te'o's heart is, in fact, straight through the heart. Or through his soul.

And so we are left for the time being - in the aftermath of Wednesday's Deadspin.com story detailing the hoax that was Lennay Kekua - that the girlfriend Te'o said he had and had died within six hours of his grandmother in September was not a true girlfriend at all. It was a scam perpetrated upon Te'o, according to Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick, or at least partially perpetuated by Te'o himself, according to the Deadspin story.

It is not unusual today for someone to have an intimate relationship with another on-line. It would be even less unusual for Manti Te'o - a football celebrity and a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints - to form an emotional bond without the physical contact that is considered a "normal" part of most relationships.

According to Swarbrick, it was an elaborate ruse executed by an unknown number of individuals pretending to be a brother, a cousin, a mother, whoever and whatever it took to convince Te'o that the people he was talking to were the real Lennay Kekua/family/friends with only his best interests at heart.

We will wait to hear from Te'o to explain some of the missing details. There were comments about "meeting" Kekua at Stanford, and his father, Brian, talking about Manti meeting with her in Hawaii. Swarbrick said that Te'o never actually saw her in person, and the claim that he had "met" her was a reference to the relationship they had established on-line, not in the flesh.

Swarbrick said efforts by Te'o to meet her in person were unsuccessful when Kekua would fail to show up at the appointed time, only to convince Te'o of a legitimate reason for her failure to appear and to maintain the relationship.

The scam is called Catfishing, which, in its most basic definition, is someone pretending to be someone else. Swarbrick called it a "sad, cruel game" for the sake of "sport."

At one point during his 40-minute press conference, Swarbrick became emotional, stopping to compose himself and take a sip of his iced tea before saying, "The thing I am most sad of, sad about, is that the single most trusting human being I've ever met will never be able to trust in the same way again in his life. That's an incredible tragedy."

If the emotion Swarbrick showed was an old lawyer's ploy, it was an effective one. It appeared genuine. It was emotion expressed about a young man on a mission to be a great football player while serving as a role model for his culture, his family, his hometown, his high school, his coaches, his teammates, his university and then himself. That much is evident, unless the whole Te'o persona was a ruse in itself, which is unthinkable when you see the family dynamic in action.

If you believe Swarbrick, Te'o was a victim of his own goodness, preyed upon by a multi-pronged group of pranksters whose only gain - at least up to this point - was the thrill of manipulating a young man's life. Once Te'o signed a professional contract -- provided that they could keep the scam alive that long - perhaps then they could turn it into financial gain.

But then that would be extortion and that would be crossing the line of legality. Cruelty for cruelty's sake - at least mental, not physical - apparently violates no specific laws. It's the perfect "crime" if you will. Punked to the nth degree with no legal ramifications.

Imagine the great kick the perpetrators of this prank got from the bonus points tied to Te'o's story. Not only did they fool one of college footballs best players, but the story kept getting better. Te'o accelerated the story by making constant references to his all-giving deceased girlfriend. His strong play on the field, coupled with his heart-wrenching story, all contributed to his rise to Heisman Trophy status.

And the story kept getting better. Notre Dame kept winning week after week. The amazing story of Manti Te'o sat at the forefront of college football, well before most of the nation knew about Johnny Manziel. What could be more fun than to torment another human being for the sake of humiliation, made all the more thrilling because of Te'o's naïveté and trusting nature? Great sport for Te'o's tormenters.

As the story continues to unfold, Te'o will be subjected to further scrutiny. He will be the butt of every vociferous fan's torment in the NFL. Before the late-April draft when he is expected to be among the first 15 or so picks, he'll be poked and prodded by NFL personnel to find out if he was simply naïve in allowing himself to be duped - which at the very least will be considered a character flaw for a player chosen that high - or a willing participant in the ruse, which could derail his professional career before it gets started.

When all is said and done, Te'o - sullied by rumors and embarrassed to epic proportions - will emerge from this a more cautious, perhaps even jaded man, calloused by the experience, suspicious of shadows that may not even exist.

The more you hear about the story, the more you want to go home, gather the people in your life who matter the most to you, lock your doors, pull the shades down, and allow no interlopers to cross over your threshold. It's safer that way.

There is no positive conclusion to this story, regardless if Te'o/Notre Dame gains retribution. If we come to find out there's more to it that Te'o isn't telling, it would become a tragedy of even greater proportions. But that simply can't be true.

At the end of the day, the cruel world that we already knew we lived in is actually even crueler than we thought. It is a world filled with large-hearted people who would do anything to help another. It also is filled with unfeeling, reckless individuals who will tear other people down for the sake of the accomplishment.

We shouldn't be surprised. There are schemes and swindles executed every day to try to get the naïve and unsuspecting to relinquish their life savings. We receive emails from "friends across the ocean" in desperate need of $5,000 to get home. It happened to my mother, three days before she had a stroke and died.

The scam is on. No one is safe, especially those most vulnerable to trust and faith in his fellow man, especially Manti Te'o.

What laws were broken? None that can be found on the books. Only the laws of humanity.


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