SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Across the Notre Dame campus Thursday, students were struggling to make sense of how Manti Te'o's heartwarming story had become so sordid and strange.
The All-American linebacker, Heisman Trophy finalists and Notre Dame's most beloved player in decades says he was the victim of an elaborate hoax that led a people to believe he had lost his girlfriend to leukemia early in the team's undefeated regular season.
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Student body President Brett Rocheleau said initially when students heard the news "they were shocked and confused."
"Most students didn't know how to react," he said. "After the news went viral, on Facebook and Twitter about the Deadspin article, there were a lot of questions, but unfortunately there weren't many answers out there. I was watching ESPN trying to see if there was any more information that wasn't in the article. Then at 8 p.m., when (Notre Dame athletic director Jack) Swarbrick had his press conference, the campus went silent as everyone watched."
Te'o said in a statement Wednesday that he developed "an emotional relationship" with a woman he met online called Lennay Kekua, and was humiliated to find out that she didn't exist. Swarbrick said an investigation Notre Dame ordered by a private firm turned up evidence that proved to school officials Te'o was not involved in the hoax.
Like all students interviewed Thursday around campus, 19-year-old Ryan Gonzales from Oxnard, Calif., said he was leaning toward believing Te'o's claim that he was a victim. But he can see why some doubt it.
"The fact that it lasted for allegedly three years without having met her, physically met her, I think that is surprising and gives some degree of incredibility," Gonzales said. "I can't even say to what degree he might have had some complicitness, because I can't really fathom why he would have done it. Maybe it was, as some people say, the publicity aspect, but I really can't bring myself to believe that."
Te'o's father, Brian, told The South Bend Tribune in October that his son and Kekua had met in-person.
Jessica Carter, a 21-year-old junior from South Bend, said she can see how the elder Te'o might have believed his son met the woman face-to-face.
"It makes sense that he would say he met her even though he hadn't physically met her," Carter said. "I know if I told my parents that I had this guy who I'm dating but I'd never actually met him, they'd think I was crazy. I'm sure he didn't want to have to deal with that. It would be more socially accepted with people our age than with his parents."
Kevin Wilhelm said he knows relationships develop that way, but he considers it odd.
"I would never make that claim, calling someone my girlfriend if I'd never met them," said Wilhelm, a 21-year-old junior from Cincinnati. "I've heard of it but I think it's pretty weird. You can't really have a relationship without face-to-face contact with the other person, because it could be anyone. You can't really tell."
Many students said Te'o's claim of innocence in the hoax seems more credible in light of the MTV show "Catfish: The TV Show," which helps people determine whether the person they are involved with online is who they say they are.
Carter is a fan of the show.
"I just find it interesting because I could never do that," she said of the show. "There was one girl who had been in a relationship for 10 years and never met the person."
Gonzales said the scandal has altered his image of Te'o, regardless of whether he was a victim or perpetrator of the hoax.
"I think what this was revealing to, if he was telling the truth, is his naiveté, about the whole thing," Gonzales said. "So that's changed my perspective of him. How could he be so naive about this?"
At the same time, he finds it believable that someone could be duped in this electronic age.
"But I find it a little more surprising for him in particular, as someone who probably could travel and go see a girlfriend in California, who's used to traveling a lot. Especially for someone who is kind of a socialite. That kind of lends itself to some of the incredibility."
Wilhelm said he believes Te'o was a victim, but he was still surprised by the mess.
"I think it's just disappointing that the situation even came up," Wilhelm said. "As someone who is a superstar and in somewhat of the national spotlight, I think you have to be more careful with who you talk to and make relationships with. It was kind of stupid to make himself so vulnerable and not really figure out what was going on."