Support for Manti Te'o in South Bend

Originally Published: January 19, 2013
By Matt Fortuna | ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Last spring, John Pepelnjak was engaged in a late-night session of "Madden NFL" on Xbox 360 with his friend Manti Te'o in Te'o's first-floor Dillon Hall dorm room. In the final game of a three-game series, Te'o received a phone call he had been anxiously awaiting.

A woman Te'o had met online, who went by the name Lennay Kekua, had been in a car accident just a few days earlier, on April 28. The voices on the other line, her purported brothers, were updating Te'o on her condition, according to Pepelnjak.

Te'o kept Pepelnjak apprised of some of the details of the conversation during several pauses, including whom he was talking to.

"That phone call made it clear to me how much Lennay meant to him," Pepelnjak told ESPN.com in a statement. "Everything he said and every emotion he expressed were painfully authentic."

As the Te'o saga has continued to unfold, and incidents such as the car accident and several others have been proven false, a number of Te'o's allies on Notre Dame's campus stepped forward publicly Saturday, including Pepelnjak. They appear to validate Te'o's version of events as he described them Friday night during a 2½-hour interview with ESPN's Jeremy Schaap, his first public statements after the revelation on Wednesday that the girl the world had come to know as Lennay Kekua does not exist.

[+] EnlargeJack Swarbrick
AP Photo/Joe RaymondNotre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick reiterated his support for Manti Te'o on Saturday.

"I'd have been more suspicious if he said 'I was really wary of this all along,'" Fighting Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick told ESPN's Mark Schwarz on Saturday, referring to Te'o's trusting nature. "It's not who he is. He's the only guy on the team who knows whether a student manager is having trouble in calculus."

That trusting nature has been a hallmark in the narrative that has evolved around Te'o, whose story of overcoming the death of his grandmother and what was believed at the time to be Kekua's death was told and retold throughout Notre Dame's season, which ended with a loss to Alabama in the Discover BCS National Championship in Miami.

Swarbrick said that since the hoax became public, he has received roughly a dozen emails from strangers saying they had been victimized in a similar fashion. He said Te'o is the most trusting guy he knows on the football team, making him the perfect target for a scheme like the one he and Te'o say has been perpetrated against the linebacker. In describing the type of woman Te'o would be attracted to, Swarbrick said "the greater the need, the more she's the love of his life."

"He truly believed he had formed a meaningful relationship with a cute and smart Hawaiian girl who cared about him for who he was, not just the No. 5," Pepelnjak said. "His rise to stardom has undoubtedly been both a blessing and a curse. Manti is just a normal guy with a kind heart, and sadly, a group of scheming jerks decided to play with his heart for whatever sick reason, pretending to be the girl of his dreams that could see past his stardom and care about him for who he really was. Ultimately, that's all that everyone wants, people who care about you for who you are, and Manti is no different."

Te'o said he did not make anything up to help his Heisman Trophy candidacy -- which, in his runner-up finish, garnered the most votes of any pure defensive player in the award's history. He said he did not know for sure that Kekua never existed until Wednesday, when Ronaiah Tuiasosopo called him and admitted he was behind the hoax.

Swarbrick said that Te'o did nothing wrong. "He didn't perpetrate this," he said. "He didn't extend it. He found himself the victim of it. And I have no quarrel with that."

Save for a handful of television trucks, the scene on the Notre Dame campus was that of a typical non-football Saturday -- quiet on the outside, raucous in some other corners, with the night's men's basketball and hockey contests both selling out a few hundred feet from each other, at the Joyce Center and the Compton Family Ice Arena, respectively.

"I think as more and more information is coming out, I think people are willing to offer their opinion more," senior finance major Brian Ward told ESPN.com. "And I would definitely say around campus -- I'm an RA myself in Keenan [Hall] -- a lot of the freshman, a lot of the sophomores, they're all very supportive. The seniors have been the most supportive, I would say. There are some guys who are still a little skeptical, but I think with the nature of the story, I think that that's to be expected."

There was support for Te'o at the Joyce Center, where the Fighting Irish defeated Rutgers 69-66 on Saturday night.

"I think everyone here is behind him," Eric Atkins, a junior guard, told ESPN.com after the game. "If I had anything to tell him, I'd just say, 'Keep your head up, and you'll get through this.'

"He's a really good guy, great guy. He's one of my friends. So just keep his head up. He has a very bright future ahead of him."

One of the more bizarre twists in a story full of them was Te'o's telling Schaap that a group of people connected to Tuiasosopo showed up at Notre Dame's team hotel in Miami on the Saturday before the BCS title game, after Notre Dame's 11 p.m. curfew. Te'o said he knew they were at the hotel because the group took photos in the hotel lobby. Someone in the group called Te'o, saying they were waiting for Kekua to join them in the lobby and asking if she was with him. Te'o then hung up.

"It's one more example of the sophistication and the layering of this scam," Swarbrick said. "I understand why people say, quote, 'Why would anybody fall for that?' They had pictures of flowers at the funeral. What kind of dress she wore at the burial. The sound of the respirator. They knew when the curfew time was and they showed up late.

"These people were really good. … It's as if they're playing a video game. Highest score wins. And the highest score in this game these people are playing is for ESPN and NBC to tell your story. They are the winners of the 'catfish' game. They got the highest score ever. And when the flowers arrived at the funeral, they probably said 'touchdown.'"

ESPN's Mark Schwarz contributed reporting from South Bend, Ind.

Matt Fortuna | email

College Football