Skip to main content

Why we fell for Manti Te'o story

By Mike Downey, Special to CNN
updated 11:04 AM EST, Fri January 18, 2013
The sports world and the Internet are abuzz as Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o says <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/16/sport/manti-teo-controversy/index.html'>he was the victim of a "sick joke"</a> that resulted in the creation of an inspirational story that had him overcoming the death of an online girlfriend at the same time he lost his grandmother. Here, Te'o leaves the field after a 42-14 loss against Alabama in the 2013 Discover BCS National Championship game on Monday, January 7, in Miami Gardens, Florida. See more photos of Te'o: The sports world and the Internet are abuzz as Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o says he was the victim of a "sick joke" that resulted in the creation of an inspirational story that had him overcoming the death of an online girlfriend at the same time he lost his grandmother. Here, Te'o leaves the field after a 42-14 loss against Alabama in the 2013 Discover BCS National Championship game on Monday, January 7, in Miami Gardens, Florida. See more photos of Te'o:
HIDE CAPTION
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Photos: Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mike Downey: We love spinning a good yarn, like Manti Te'o and his doomed girlfriend
  • Downey: Manti's story become curiouser and curiouser with every new detail
  • Think of all the legends (true or false) about Babe Ruth, Seabiscuit, Knute Rockne, he says
  • Downey: Manti Te'o's story makes him want to laugh as much as cry

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.

(CNN) -- Oh, the stories we storytellers tell. Like the story of brave Manti Te'o and his doomed girlfriend. We love a good story. We love spinning a good yarn.

And we repeat and repeat and repeat them.

Babe Ruth was a big boy from an orphanage. Seabiscuit was a little horse that lost its first 17 races. Jim Thorpe was a Native American born in 1887 or '88 (as far as we know) with the name Wa-Tho-Huck.

Mike Downey
Mike Downey

It is their legend, their lore. The same way that George Washington cut down that tree or Abe Lincoln split those logs. The same way that Lana Turner was discovered at a drugstore called Schwab's or that Sylvester Stallone wrote the part of Rocky but wouldn't sell the script unless he could play it.

Documented achievement is what turns a man or woman into a public figure. But the story behind the story, well, that is also a telltale aspect of any human's fame. Yes, he did win this, she did win that, but come on, tell me a little more. How did they get this far? Where did they come from? Who influenced them? What else should we know?

Muhammad Ali wasn't a mere boxer; he was a man who changed his name and faith, a man who would fight anybody in a ring but refused to go to a war, a perfect physical specimen and a loudmouth who fell frail and all but mute from an affliction he couldn't beat.

Lots of fighters won fights. The stories are what have made Ali Ali.

Motive behind Te'o girlfriend hoax?
Manti Te'o: My girlfriend never existed
Rosenhaus: Te'o should 'come clean'
Writer: Reporters didn't check Te'o hoax

It separates names from the norm. He or she is not just a success but a remarkable story, an inspiration, a believe-it-or-not. He was a left-handed pitcher with no right hand who threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees. (Jim Abbott.) He ran in the Olympic Games on prosthetic legs. (Oscar Pistorius.) She sprinted to an Olympic gold even though they once nearly amputated her feet. (Gail Devers.) You can't make up stories like those.

Joe DiMaggio was a ballplayer. We know that Joe played ball better than most. But we also know Joe was married to Marilyn Monroe. We cannot tell you a lot about Willie Mays or Stan Musial except how they played ball. Both played it as well as Joe did ... hey, maybe better. But in some cases, the stories of certain greats are as unforgettable as their deeds.

So, we tell their tales. The subjects often furnish the details. We rely on honesty for accuracy. A story that has been reported is a story that ends up repeated because it must be true. We lazily assume facts not in evidence. Or we lean on: "Who would make up such a thing?"

Which brings us to Manti Te'o.

The grim fairy tale of The Linebacker Of Notre Dame is one we likely will tell for a while. We woke up Thursday morning and began reading a story that got curiouser and curiouser with every sentence. His girlfriend wasn't real? She wasn't in a car crash? She didn't die of leukemia? He never met her? She didn't even exist???

Irish blarney is a myth, is it not? Pots o' gold and St. Patrick and the snakes and how are things in Glocca Morra and all that? Aye, we aren't so gullible that we will swallow anything, would we, now?

So, OK. We tell and retell the true and false legends of Knute Rockne and winning one for the Gipper and all that, but we don't really mind. And maybe that October sky wasn't really as blue-grey as Grantland Rice told us it was when those Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rode to a great Notre Dame victory on the ol' gridiron.

"South Bend, it sounds almost like dancing!" gushed Katharine Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story," and what a funny story that was.

Manti Te'o's story, however .... not so funny.

He is a Notre Dame football star. Trust me, this alone is not a news event. Notre Dame turns out football stars the way Hostess turned out Twinkies. One after another after another.

He is also a Hawaiian kid with an apostrophe in his surname. Now that, that is not something you see on a Notre Dame football field every Saturday. A nice, noteworthy thing, something that separated Te'o from the pack, somewhat.

He is also a natural born leader. One who helped take Notre Dame to an undefeated season -- rare, in this day and age -- and to the national championship game.

In the vote for the Heisman Trophy, given to college football's top player of any given season, Te'o was the runner-up. That in itself is an honor, but for a linebacker to do such a thing, a defensive player, it is truly cool.

Ahhh, but there was more to the Manti Te'o story, as we watched that story unfold. He had this girlfriend, see. Lennay Kekua was her lovely name. And she died. A few months ago, she was in a car crash, we were told. And then doctors found she also had leukemia, we were told. Her death, as well as that of his grandmother, broke Te'o's heart. But on he played, gallantly, valiantly, fighting on for the Fighting Irish, remaining undefeated against adversity.

Until at some point it turned out to be a hoax. Which at some point Notre Dame's administrators discovered. Which at some point Te'o confirmed, although not publicly, not before that January 7 championship game against Alabama.

Brent Musburger made the Alabama quarterback's girlfriend an overnight sensation that night, gushing about her looks. Musburger did not make the Notre Dame linebacker's girlfriend a star that night. She wasn't there.

Turns out, she was never anywhere.

We love a good story and will continue to tell them. I, myself, once wrote of a Notre Dame football star, Chris Zorich, who played in the Orange Bowl one night, flew home to Chicago the next morning and found his mother dead inside their home. I made people cry with that story. I damn near cried myself while typing it.

Manti Te'o's story makes me want to laugh as much as cry. Mainly because I can barely comprehend it. All those stories being told out there on TV and in print about his "girlfriend" -- uh, he might have mentioned to someone that he'd never even met her.

How do the movies put it? "Based on a true story?"

Well, based on a story, anyhow. Everybody's is.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Downey.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT