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Dream girl: A portrait of Manti Te'o's imaginary girlfriend

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Manti Te'o claims he was tricked into falling for a woman who didn't exist.

She was beautiful, brainy, brave — and really unlucky.

A tantalizing portrait has emerged of Lennay Kekua, the doomed character at the center of the Manti Te'o hoax.

Te'o says he now knows his online girlfriend was "someone's sick joke," and Notre Dame says she was "fictitious." Muddying the waters, an NFL player claims to have met the woman, or at least someone using her name, in the flesh.


Imaginary or real, this much can be said about Lennay Kekua: She was a dream.

"Looked like a model," Arizona Cardinals fullback Reagan Mauia, who claims to have befriended her in 2011, told ESPN. "Volleyball-type of physique...She was athletic, tall, beautiful. Long hair. Polynesian."

In an earlier ESPN interview, Te'o called her "the most beautiful" girl he had ever met -- never mind that he apparently never laid eyes on her.

A seemingly invented account of a first meeting, offered by Teo's father to an Indiana newspaper, said the athlete was drawn to her "warm smile and soulful eyes" when they saw each other in 2009.

Photos posted on Kekua's Twitter and Facebook accounts were reportedly of another good-looking woman.

But Kekua was more than just a pretty face.

According to a South Bend Tribune profile of Te'o, his 22-year-old girlfriend was a scholar at Stanford University, a gifted musician, and fluent in several languages. She was majoring in English “or something” and had a way with children, Te’o told Sports Illustrated.

She was portrayed as a traveler, supposedly living and attending school in California, but popping off to Hawaii from time to time to see Te'o, according to Deadspin's pieced-together timeline of their relationship. He told Sports Illustrated she went to New Zealand to work with kids.


Mauia said he met her while doing charity work in American Samoa in June 2011. They became "good friends" and he consoled her after the death of her father, he said.

"I offered a comforting shoulder and just someone to bounce her emotions off," Mauia said.

The family was originally from Hawaii, Te’o told SI. They ran a construction firm where Kekua, naturally, also worked, he said.

Her parents named her Melelengei at birth but also called her Lala for short, he said. She had a sister and a twin brother, Koa.

Her father's death was the start of what could only be described as stunning run of rotten luck.

By Te'o's account, she was nearly killed in a car accident in California sometime last year – she “flatlined” twice and was hooked up to machines for weeks, Te’o said -- and then battled back from her injuries.

Then came an even bigger blow, as the story goes: a diagnosis of leukemia.

Te'o and his family said she was treated at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, Calif. She had a heart of gold, befriending a little girl who was terminal, Te'o claimed. And she had grit, enduring a bone-marrow transplant, according to Te'o's father.

In June, she was doing "really well," the dad told an interviewer. By September, though, she was reported to be contemplating her demise with uncommon courage.

The way the linebacker told it, Kekua was unselfish to the very end, making him promise that he wouldn't miss a game, even for her funeral. Instead, she said, when he learned from Koa that she was dead, he sent a bouquet of flowers.

When he spoke about it, he revealed one more tidbit about Kekua: She really loved white roses.

 

The inspirational story of Notre Dame's star linebacker Manti Te'o leading his team to glory despite his girlfriend's death made national headlines. But after Deadspin.com reported that the woman never existed, Te'o is now saying he was the victim of "someone's sick joke." NBC's John Yang reports.

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