By Tim Graham
At least for a night, Manti Te'o has eclipsed Lance Armstrong's much-awaited confession as the grandest story of deception in sports.
How much Te'o, the highly touted Notre Dame linebacker, was involved in the invention of a fictitious dead girlfriend or whether he intentionally propagated the inspirational storyline for publicity purposes -- perhaps to get an edge in the Heisman Trophy race -- is unclear.
But with Te'o considered by draft analysts to be a player the Buffalo Bills might select with the eighth overall pick in April, the outrageous hoax revealed today by Deadspin.com should impact what happens at One Bills Drive.
ESPN draft generalissimo Mel Kiper's most recent mock projected Te'o to the Bills because linebacker is a position of need, and Te'o is the best in this year's class. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay also has forecasted Te'o to Buffalo.
Scouts Inc. rates Te'o the seventh-best player of any position in the draft.
"The Bills really need help at interior linebacker, where Kelvin Sheppard is a good player, but won't become a great one," Kiper wrote before the Deadspin story came out. "Te'o doesn't have elite athleticism, but he has elite instincts, elite intangibles and will become the leader of a defense by the end of training camp.
"He makes the Buffalo run defense better immediately, and very quietly was second in the nation in interceptions, showing great awareness in his drops -- and good hands -- against the pass. He may not end up this high, but I'm sold on him as a high-level NFL middle linebacker."
After Te'o's late girlfriend was revealed to be fake, Kiper wrote: "Based on the hoax story that circulated today, Te'o will face some tough questions in the coming days, and certainly at the NFL combine. At this point, however, it's difficult to determine what if any impact this kind of thing will have."
Te'o claimed in a statement this afternoon that he was an unwitting victim of the hoax.
One of the more moving stories of the college football season was Te'o valiantly coping with the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend within days of each other. His grandmother did die. But girlfriend Lennay Kekua didn't exist, let alone die from leukemia that was detected while in the hospital after a car accident.
The Deadspin report alleges a friend of Te'o is the culprit of the con.
"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," Te'o said in his statement. "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."
Much of the details in the Deadspin report and a review of information Te'o and his family apparently provided television networks and publications over the months don't jibe with the linebacker's explanation today.
Te'o has spoken in interviews about how he met Kekua, a student at Stanford, outside the stadium after a game. He has said that her last words to him were "I love you."
Te'o was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was a favorite subject of national broadcasts as Notre Dame remained unbeaten entering the BCS title game against Alabama. Te'o looked awful against the Crimson Tide, but he already had established himself as the Fighting Irish's latest gridiron warrior.
He finished second in Heisman voting to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, but Te'o generated the most votes by a pure defensive player in the hallowed trophy's history.
Whether he meant to dupe the public or not, the made-for-cinema storyline about his nonexistent girlfriend almost certainly helped him gain popularity and, had the ruse not been foiled, substantial sponsorship money.
Unless the Bills scratch Te'o from their draft board, they'll have no choice but to ask him to elaborate on this sordid tale when they meet in the coming weeks.
How Te'o responds -- with the help of rehearsed talking points polished to a sheen by his agent and, likely, a crisis-control specialist -- could determine whether he's a candidate to suit up for the Bills and how far he tumbles down the draft board.
Character counts in the NFL draft process. Te'o's disappointing performance in the national title game was bad enough, but this fiasco will torpedo his draft stock.
The thought of Buffalo's front office, desperate to change its losing culture under new President Russ Brandon and new head coach Doug Marrone, drafting Te'o eighth overall is almost as absurd as inventing a dead co-ed.