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Campus community stands by Te’o

Andrew Owens | Monday, January 21, 2013

Long Tran remembers his freshman and sophomore years when his roommate would lend him life advice, introduce him to other people and decompress with video games after a long day.

His Dillon Hall roommate was Manti Te’o, the former Irish linebacker who became the subject of controversy and speculation less than a week ago when it was revealed his deceased girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, in fact did not exist.

Tran, a senior, said he wholeheartedly believes Te’o’s side of the story, which was revealed early Saturday morning in an interview with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap.

“I do not think he had any part in this,” Tran said. “I believe he was tricked and taken advantage of and I fully believe in him.

“Whatever happens, whatever people may say, he is still a source of inspiration to me, my roommate and forever my friend.”

Tran said he was upset with some of the speculation and rumors he heard from people on campus immediately after the report was published.

“I totally think it’s unfair the way campus [reacted],” he said. “If anyone ever met Manti or talked to him, they would know what kind of person he is and what he stood for. They would know … that he is innocent.”

Support for Te’o hardly ends with Tran in Dillon Hall. Dorm rector Fr. Paul Doyle told The Observer in an interview Thursday – prior to the linebacker’s first public comments after news of the hoax broke – that he fully trusts Te’o’s character.

“I don’t have time to read all the stuff that’s been written about this,” Doyle said. “The only thing I can say is I always found him to be a very honest and trustworthy person. I don’t think I misjudged him. [Jack Swarbrick] chooses to believe Manti.

“I have zero reason to doubt Manti Te’o.”

Notre Dame graphic design professor Anne Berry taught Te’o in a course last semester and said she cannot envision him concocting this hoax.

“If he says he was duped, I have no reason not to believe him,” she said. “We live in a culture where we treat a person like a king or queen one day and a villain the next, before we know what the full facts of a given situation are. That in and of itself is unfortunate.”

Berry said Te’o was a hard-working student in her class and that he always treated classmates with “respect, generosity and warmhearted affection.”

“His celebrity and the reality of his rising stardom couldn’t be completely denied, however, within the context of the classroom he was simply another design student,” she said. “Not once did he ever imply that he deserved special treatment or consideration, and he took his share of critical feedback just like everyone else, without complaint.”

Berry said she and Te’o spoke in general terms after it appeared both Te’o’s grandmother and Kekua had died in September, although he never specifically mentioned Kekua in their conversations.

“It was clear, however, that she and his grandmother were in his thoughts which came through via a few of the design assignments he completed for my class,” Berry said.

During the fall, Te’o sent a letter of support to the family of Bridget Smith, a 12-year-old girl who died in October. Her parents, Brian and Louise Smith, released a statement to The Observer in support of Te’o and stood behind the linebacker despite learning that Kekua never existed.

“Manti Te’o sent us a beautiful email that we received on October 5, 2012, the day our daughter Bridget passed away after a three-year battle with a brain tumor. In that message, Manti expressed his condolences, prayers and support, and relayed these thoughts in the context of the recent loss of his grandmother and girlfriend. His message was genuine and poignant in every way.

“Manti’s interactions with us were always compassionate, humble and expressed concern for our well-being and privacy. The events of the past couple of days have been very surreal, but we continue to support and believe in this generous young man with a huge heart. He helped us to get through the most difficult days of our lives, and for that, we are very grateful. Manti remains in our hearts and prayers.”

Talk show host Katie Couric will sit down with Te’o and his parents this week in their first on-camera interview since the controversy emerged. The interview will be aired on Couric’s syndicated show at 4 p.m. Thursday.

Several reports suggest that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the supposed mastermind of the hoax, will end his silence this week.

Contact Andrew Owens at [email protected]