Before he became infamous for a non-existent girlfriend, in fact, before he became famous as the star linebacker for Notre Dame, Manti Te’o grew up in the largely Mormon community of Laie on the North Shore of the island of Oahu. There, the sense of family is strong and the support for athletics even stronger. He was both linebacker and running back for the local Kahuku High and Intermediate school. All throughout, the young athlete had no greater cheerleader than his own father, Brian.
Brian Te’o, who joined the coaching staff of his Kahuku, would work with his son after games reviewing plays gone awry. Manti and his father would often be seen practicing using new methods outside their Laie home, says Junior Ah You, owner of Tita’s Grill in Kahuku. “They trained together, using the ladder, pylometrics and those types of techniques,” says Ah You. “His father worked with him. He comes from an outstanding family, very close. He’s the kind of kid that every father wants or should have.”
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The devotion of the senior Te’o to his talented son was undeniable, no more evident than a week before the girlfriend hoax scandal broke. At that time, the family was still reeling from the meltdown by Notre Dame—and Manti himself—at the BCS Championship in Miami on Jan. 7, when the Fighting Irish were crushed by the Alabama Crimson Tide 42-14. But Brian Te’o seems to have thought that a line had been crossed when an unflattering photograph of his son appeared on the front page of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser with a caption titled “Bowled Over.”
He took to his son’s official fan page on Facebook and apparently wrote the following: “Our family has been very gracious to the Star Advertiser by providing interviews and photos of our son in the recent weeks. On our way home from Miami we were ‘privileged’ to see how the Star Advertiser returns that favor by posting a photo of our son ‘presumably’ being ‘bowled over’ by the Alabama RB (Eddie Lacy). So, from this point forward, Star Advertiser you have been officially black listed. I will no longer agree to any more interviews, sharing of photos, or anything else, and I will encourage all who have a subscription to your newspaper to not renew. Be more responsible in the future…if you can.”
That tirade would almost immediately be lost in the louder noise made by the revelation about Lennay Kekua, Manti Te’o’s purported girlfriend—a “fact” taken for granted by most media stories on the football phenom, including TIME and its sister publication Sports Illustrated, when the heartbreaking story of the almost simultaneous deaths of his grandmother and alleged girlfriend onSept. 12, 2012 only seemed to inspire Manti to legendary performances on the field. (Brian Te’o’s Facebook outburst and the non-existence of Kekua were both reported by the sports site Deadspin.com.)
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The din over Kekua has certainly dismayed the young man’s admirers in Hawaii, who are hoping that the Notre Dame star did not have any role in creating a fictitious object of affection. According to Notre Dame’s Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick, a shaken Te’o called his coaches on Dec. 26 to say he had received a phone call from a woman whose voice he recognized as that of Kekua—who had supposedly died on Sept. 12; Te’o told Notre Dame he was the victim of an elaborate scheme. Said Swarbrick, “In many ways, Manti was the perfect mark because he is a guy who is so willing to believe in others.”
“The people of Hawaii are hoping he has nothing to do with this,” says Rich Miano, a football coach at Henry J. Kaiser High School in Honolulu and who played professionally for the Jets, the Eagles and the Falcons. “He is a hero for us. He’s someone who says and does the right things.” His coach at Kahuku in Laie echoed the sentiments. Says Reggie Torres, “Someone like Manti would do anything for others. Someone like Manti could be taken advantage of. He is a great young man. It is sad to see him go through something like this.”
But, while Te’o grew up in Laie and spent time at the local school, he did not graduate from Kahuku high. He transferred to the prestigious Punahou school across the island—the most famous alumnus is President Barack Obama—spending the 7th and 8th grades there before apparently deciding to return to Kahuku as a high school freshman. For reasons not yet clear, he told his parents a few months later that he wanted to return to Punahou and would graduate from there in 2009. But first he would help Punahou win its first ever state football championship in 2008.
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Torres says he was sad to see Te’o leave for another school and team but, he adds, “He’s a smarty kid. Punahou challenged him more academically.” He earned a 3.5 grade point average at Punahou.
He was a legend in the making in the islands. One local newspaper, the Honolulu Advertiser named him the Hawaii State Defensive Player of the Decade (2000-2009). He was twice named All-State Defensive Player of the Year. And there was national attention too: Sporting News named him the 2008 High School Athlete of the Year. Heavily recruited, he settled on Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. In his senior year, he burst onto the national state with game performances that made him the runner up in the last Heisman trophy awards. The mainland glory simply made him a bigger star in the islands.
Even though Notre Dame was routed by Alabaman in the national championship bowl, Te’o was expected to do extremely well in the National Football League draft at the end of April. His fans continue to believe he will go on to a glorious professional career. “He is destined for greatness,” says Miano,. “We are all hoping he isn’t part of the [hoax]. I hope he comes out of this with his reputation intact. It takes someone with a strong character to stay grounded when people worship you at every turn.”