Spend time talking to Notre Dame’s famous linebacker, and you can feel the tao of Te’o.
Manti Te’o is so sincere even the most callous cynic assumes he’s incapable of cooking up the nefarious scheme many accuse him of.
That’s what made news that Te’o’s girlfriend — whose alleged death from leukemia provided an inspirational hook for Notre Dame’s resurgence and fueled Te’o’s Heisman Trophy candidacy — was an Internet invention such a mind-bending revelation.
He’s either an actor worthy of an Oscar or is what teary-eyed Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick claims him to be — the victim of a cruel hoax.
Or perhaps what started as a prank took on a life of its own and Te’o hitched a ride.
“It’s the most absurd, convoluted, tragic social media-sports story I can remember,” said Kathleen Hessert, the founder and president of the social media consulting company Buzz Manager. “But if major banks can be hacked, if people can fall in love via Facebook, if young people can be abducted by strangers they meet on the Internet, then a Notre Dame football player can feel like he fell in love with somebody on the Internet.”
Hessert is from a fifth-generation Notre Dame family. She has worked with the Notre Dame football team in the past, but not in recent years. She has also been a consultant to the Miami Heat, the PGA Tour and the Manning brothers.
In this case, like many of Te’o’s current and former teammates, she doesn’t know what to believe.
“All I can say is, the time I spent with Manti when I was at school, he was a stand-up guy,” said former Irish tackle Sam Young. “I don’t know how this story will shake out, but I’m not one to rush to conclusions. I’ll let the dust settle. But I know he’s a great person.”
Kids grow up playing video games with strangers online. They join chat rooms where friendships are forged and become real, or at least seem real.
Te’o was born in a small town on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. He went to a private middle school/high school and became a football star. Then it was on to Notre Dame, where images are polished like the Golden Dome.
Maybe, as hard as it might be to fathom, he was a fat target.
“People who do not use social media have no inkling of the draw of it and the compulsion it can create and the strength of connections that can be made,” Hessert said. “If someone doubts he ‘met’ her because they didn’t ‘meet’ in person they don’t have a clue about social media. There are indeed strong relationships that start there.”
Expect a wild ride as this story unfolds. Remember, too, that some who give Te’o the benefit of the doubt aren’t doing so because they are naïve, but because he always seemed incredibly so.