Top 13 of 2013: The bizarre catfishing of Manti Te'o

Top 13 of 2013: The bizarre catfishing of Manti Te'o
December 23, 2013, 8:30 am
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CSNChicago.com is taking a look back at what turned out to be a memorable year in the Windy City, by counting down the 13 biggest Chicago sports stories of 2013. Check back each day to see what other storylines were good enough to make the list.

It was a stunning, extraordinary story: Manti Te'o, the leader of Notre Dame's run to the BCS Championship, was the victim of an elaborate catfishing.

Lennay Kekua was Te'o's girlfriend, and she died sometime in the middle of September -- only hours after Te'o's grandmother passed away. Coach Brian Kelly awarded the game ball for Notre Dame's emotional win over Michigan to Kekua. The story of Te'o's triumph over two tragic losses helped fuel his second-place Heisman finish. He became an inspirational figure, and as the good games piled up he became almost immune to criticism.

In the bloodbath that was Notre Dame's 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship, Manti Te'o played his worst game of the season, maybe of his college career. But nobody questioned Te'o's legacy in the hours and days following the BCS Championship -- it was one awful game amid a slew of good performances, and Notre Dame doesn't go undefeated without Te'o's heroics.

Then Deadspin dropped a bomb on the entire Te'o narrative. Kekua wasn't real. Te'o didn't actually overcome the death of his girlfriend, because his girlfriend never actually existed. Instead, Kekua was the product of an intricate hoax perpetrated by a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.

Te'o probably wasn't in on the hoax. Everything that came out after the initial Deadspin story -- which was impeccably reported, it should be noted -- suggested that Te'o was nothing more than an extremely gullible guy who was played a fool by Tuiasasopo.

But the damage was done, and for the most part, it was Te'o's fault for the destruction of his image. On Dec. 6, 2012, Te'o received a call from someone claiming to be Kekua, though she was supposed to have died three months prior. On Dec. 26, Te'o told athletic director Jack Swarbrick he thought something was amiss, and a private investigative firm was hired and presented its findings to Te'o and the school on Jan. 5, 2013.

[MORE: Jack Swarbrick still weighing changes to Notre Dame Stadium]

That was two days before the BCS Championship, and releasing all the info on the hoax would've been a massive distraction for Notre Dame (though, in retrospect, it wouldn't have mattered). But had Te'o and his family put out a press release, released statements, held a press conference -- the message could've been controlled.

And while Te'o's reputation would've been dinged, and he still would've become a national punchline, it's hard to imagine the blowback being as bad as it was with Deadspin breaking the story.

Instead, for the rest of his life, Te'o will be known as that gullible Notre Dame linebacker who got catfished -- not as one of the greatest defensive players in Notre Dame history who nearly won the Heisman Trophy. There's no escaping it: Everywhere Te'o goes, reminders of his fake dead girlfriend follow.

His legacy at Notre Dame was tarnished -- even when he's able to return to South Bend for a game, if he's honored at some point during it, you can bet the first thing on plenty of fans' minds will be "man, remember that whole girlfriend hoax?"

Though, perhaps something that worked in favor of Te'o's legacy was how glaring his absence was in 2013. With Te'o at his inside linebacker post, a number of Irish players -- Matthias Farley, Bennett Jackson, Dan Fox to name a few -- had solid seasons. While it's tough to say this is a direct correlation, all three of those players struggled this season and Notre Dame's defense saw a significant dropoff in success.

Te'o was an elite player at Notre Dame, one of the best to come through the program. Until Jan. 16, 2013, that was how he was going to be remembered.

But the twist in his story was, in just about the truest sense of the word, bizarre. 

Top 13 stories of 2013

13. Wins and losses don't define Chris Sale's season 

12. Nate Robinson's late playoff heroics beat Nets 

11. Northern Illinois takes national stage in 2013, the Year of the Huskie

10. Cubs fire Sveum, showing cracks in foundation 

9. The bizarre catfishing of Manti Te'o

8. Cutler, McCown and the Bears' starting QB role

7. Blackhawks' record-breaking start

6. Historically bad season for Cubs and White Sox

5. Notre Dame crushed in BCS Championship Game

4. Bears sever ties with Brian Urlacher