When the Great Manti-Lennay Love Story was just catching on, the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune printed an account of how it all started, straight from the mouth of the star linebacker's father.
They had met in 2009 after the Stanford-Notre Dame football game, the beautiful Stanford coed "with the warm smile and soulful eyes" and the star linebacker from the legendary Fighting Irish, when "their stares got pleasantly tangled." Their long-distance love led to all-night phone calls three years later, as she lay dying of leukemia in a California hospital and he chased an undefeated season and built an unforgettable narrative for a Heisman Trophy, college football's player of the year.
But this week's blockbuster revelation that Manti Te'o's heartbreaking love story was all a hoax left Stanford officials and students buzzing about their link to the make-believe leading lady in this modern masterpiece of online intrigue and deceit.
Te'o's love interest, Lennay Kekua, as revealed by the sports website Deadspin.com, never existed -- and, like many people who try to pad their résumé, never attended Stanford.
But that didn't stop the head-scratching and record-reviewing Thursday around campus as the story of the Great Manti-Lennay Love Story, er, Hoax was the talk of the country.
"Manti Te'o's fake girlfriend, and how we missed it," screamed the headline on the Stanford Daily website.
Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Lapin fielded calls nonstop. "AP, CNN, NBC, the Chicago Tribune ..."
Students went to town on the Stanford Daily website: "The Stanford Band can play a rousing version of 'She's Not There,' " said one commenter. "Oh my God, this is fantastic," said another. "Please tell the band before we play Notre Dame next year."
Some found it hard to believe that no one in the Stanford community had tried to investigate the Stanford connection to such an incredible story that picked up steam as Te'o and the Fighting Irish steamed toward the title game against Alabama.
Miles Bennett-Smith, Stanford Daily's managing editor of the sports section, said he heard Kekua's name for the first time Wednesday afternoon, when he received an email from the Notre Dame student newspaper.
"That was the first time that I or anyone on my sports staff had heard anything about her being a Stanford grad or student," said Bennett-Smith, a 22-year-old senior and American Studies major from Penryn near Sacramento. "For me, it was at the same time disheartening, exciting and mystifying."
He immediately Googled Kekua's Stanford connection and said he found only a couple of references that would have appeared before this week's sensational revelation.
"If we had known about this girl, we would have run an obituary, a record of the car accident, which of course we had none of," Bennett-Smith said.
Lapin said it's routine to get inquires verifying Stanford credentials. But she knew of no one calling before Wednesday to check out whether the mystery student attended Stanford.
"I had a vague recollection that there was a girlfriend that died," Lapin said Thursday of stories she heard about Te'o. "But prior to yesterday, I wasn't aware there was any Stanford connection."
Exactly who perpetrated the hoax and why are still a mystery. Notre Dame investigated and claims that Te'o was a victim of a vicious but increasingly common online prank that inspired the MTV reality show "Catfish." Deadspin reported that one of Te'o's friends was behind the prank and suggested that Te'o might have played a role. Some parts of Te'o's story don't add up, Deadspin wrote.
The South Bend Tribune reporter whose story gave what appeared to be the first account of Manti and Kekua meeting at Stanford told an Indiana television station that he kept a tape of the interview with Te'o's father.
But red flags were flying on the Stanford campus months before, it turns out. On Thursday, Sports Illustrated reporter Peter Thamel revealed that he contacted Mike Eubanks, in charge of media relations for Stanford football, to ask about Kekua for an October cover story on Te'o overcoming the death of his grandmother and girlfriend, who died within hours of each other in September.
Eubanks "couldn't find her in the alumni directory and thought it was odd that, on such a small campus, he'd never heard of a student dating Te'o. This was the most glaring sign I missed," Thamel said on Sports Illustrated's website. "I thought that maybe she didn't graduate, so we took any reference to Stanford out of the story."
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.