You might not be a sports fanatic like I am (but let’s not forget: Jesus above all things including football), but you may have heard the story of an incredible college football player from Notre Dame named Manti Te’o. If you follow sports and especially college football, you know that name. He was one of the final three Heisman Trophy finalists and won eight postseason awards this year becoming “the most decorated collegiate football player of all time.” In short, a football stud.
But over the past year, he gained even more attention for two particular personal tragedies that took place in his life – both within the same time frame. First, his grandmother passed away and then, his girlfriend passed away just hours after he learned that his grandmother passed away:
Te’o had talked openly during the season about his supposed relationship with a former Stanford student named Lennay Kekua, whom he claimed in a South Bend Tribune article to have met in 2009 after a football game. Kekua was said to have lost her battle with leukemia on Sept. 12, just hours after Te’o learned that his 72-year old grandmother had passed away. The story of how Te’o dealt with massive personal tragedy became front and center in his rise to national consciousness… [USA Today]
Like others, I was gripped and compelled by his story. I may or may not have shed a tear after one of his interviews.
So, what’s the problem? In an unbelievable expose, Deadspin (a sports blog) revealed that Manti Te’o's Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking and Inspiration Story of the College Football Season Is A Hoax.
Manti Te’o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis. But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper…The Stanford registrar’s office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.
The photographs identified as Kekua—in online tributes and on TV news reports—are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman who is not named Lennay Kekua. She is not a Stanford graduate; she has not been in a severe car accident; and she does not have leukemia. And she has never met Manti Te’o.
After the news broke, Manti issued this personal statement:
“This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her.
“To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.
“It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother’s death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life. “I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been.
“In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was."
Listen, I’m not here to bash Manti. I’m not here to ridicule or mock him. I’m not even suggesting that Manti is lying or that his statement is not accurate but we can all agree that the whole story is absolutely bizarre and the total truth has yet to be fully revealed. But because I’m a believer in people – and more so – because I believe in the power of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration, I want to see Manti do well – not just as a football player – but as a man … as a human being … and as someone who often speaks of God.
If I were Manti’s pastor …
While more details will emerge in the future, I wondered what kind of advice I would give him if I were Manti’s personal pastor. (Manti, being Mormon, is supposedly a deeply religious person.) Here are the four pieces of advice I’d give him:
1. The truth shall set you free.
Be honest. Be truthful. Not half truthful. Not half honest. Not part truthful but completely truthful.
Completely honest – to the details.
You owe this to yourself, to your supporters and fans, to your college, to your team, and to every single person that has been gripped by your story.
Truth is important because ultimately, it removes any possibilities of half-truths to be utilized as weapons from people whose motivation might be to hurt you or to bring you down. Truth is important because it has the power to remove the stronghold of deception in your own life. Confession, repentance, truth, and forgiveness are beautiful things. These are all gifts to us. They have the power to lead us towards a path of reconciliation, redemption, and restoration. They enable a path not only for God’s forgiveness and grace but also enables people on a path towards forgiveness as well.
What’s been difficult and painful (and infuriating) with the entire Lance Armstrong ordeal hasn’t just been that he doped and cheated for so many years but that he kept maintaining and insisting on the deception that he was truthful and innocent – even at the expense of accusing others of lying against him.
In the end, truth prevails so don’t let truth be your nemesis, let it be your advocate.
Let truth be your liberator and not your oppressor.
2. Don’t play the victim card.
You are a grown man.
You are a big man.
You are a smart man.
You are a leader.
You are a follower of Christ.
It’s not to suggest that you are a perfect man as we’re all learning and growing. But part of growing as an adult, as a man, as a leader, and as a follower of God – in our character and integrity – is to own up to our mistakes.
Making mistakes – however big or small – really sucks. They are painful – especially when we hurt others through our mistakes. But limit the suckitude: own up, learn, grow up, confess, repent, and move on – however slowly.
In short: Don’t play the victim card.
3. Watch the company you keep.
You’ve heard this. You’ve likely shared this in your talks to others.
Be careful who you surround yourself with.
Even those who you love might not be the best people to surround yourself with in all matters and decisions.
Be astute. Be prayerful. Be discerning. Be sharp. Be wise.
When you’ve hit rock bottom, people will want a piece of you. When you’ve reached a pinnacle in power, influence, and wealth … more and more folks will want a piece of you. Therefore, be wise in judging who gets a piece of you – both in the low points and high points of your life – and everywhere in between.
Through this ordeal, you’ll lose friends, fans, and supporters – (especially if you’re been complicit in some way). But through this ordeal, you’ll also learn to be that much more careful about who you surround yourself with – obviously not just online but in real life. And you’ll discover the friends and community that can help you through your life – even the lowest points of your life.
And in all things: Test the wisdom and advice from others through the lens of Scriptures, your faith, your convictions, the Holy Spirit … even the advice I give you.
4. Trust God. Your better years are ahead…
God loves you. Period.
God’s grace is bigger than your failures. Period.
God is bigger than the ferocity of the storms of our lives. Period.
God loves you – not for your football career but for you.
Trust God. Receive God. Walk with God. Go with God. This is the foremost thing. Even if you’ve lost everything, you’ll be on solid ground if you still have the truth of God in your life.
Believe this because this will be tested in your life.
Oh, you will be tested!
But this “embarrassing” situation does not have to define your life. It does not equate the end of your life. It is not the purpose of your life. You’re 22 years old … you still have your entire life before you.
Walk in truth, character, and integrity. Walk in faith.
Transformation does not happen overnight. Transformation is arduous and laborious but you can begin the process of transformation today. Take one step; then another, and soon these steps join together to be a path of restoration and redemption.
You are a fantastic football player. You’ll have an amazing football career. You’ll make a great deal of money. Steward that well. Be generous. Be gracious. But God did not create you to only play football. You’ll have an opportunity to influence and impact many people – not only through your strengths but also through your weaknesses; Not only through your accomplishments but also through your failures.
Remember, God and His grace is greater than your failures.
But through it all … keep your eyes focused on Christ.
Those would be some of my advice. How about you?
Eugene Cho, a second-generation Korean-American, is the founder and lead pastor of Quest Church in Seattle and the executive director of Q Cafe, an innovative nonprofit neighborhood café and music venue. You can stalk him at hisblog, Twitter or his Facebook Page. Eugene and his wife are also the founders of a movement of people, stories, and actions to alleviate extreme global poverty. This blog post originally appeared on Eugene Cho’s blog. Follow Eugene on Twitter @EugeneCho and on Facebook.