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Why we fell for Manti Te'o story

By Mike Downey, Special to CNN
January 18, 2013 -- Updated 1604 GMT (0004 HKT)
The sports world and the Internet are abuzz as Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o says <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/16/sport/manti-teo-controversy/index.html'>he was the victim of a "sick joke"</a> that resulted in the creation of an inspirational story that had him overcoming the death of an online girlfriend at the same time he lost his grandmother. Here, Te'o leaves the field after a 42-14 loss against Alabama in the 2013 Discover BCS National Championship game on Monday, January 7, in Miami Gardens, Florida. See more photos of Te'o: The sports world and the Internet are abuzz as Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o says he was the victim of a "sick joke" that resulted in the creation of an inspirational story that had him overcoming the death of an online girlfriend at the same time he lost his grandmother. Here, Te'o leaves the field after a 42-14 loss against Alabama in the 2013 Discover BCS National Championship game on Monday, January 7, in Miami Gardens, Florida. See more photos of Te'o:
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Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Photos: Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
Notre Dame star Manti Te'o
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mike Downey: We love spinning a good yarn, like Manti Te'o and his doomed girlfriend
  • Downey: Manti's story become curiouser and curiouser with every new detail
  • Think of all the legends (true or false) about Babe Ruth, Seabiscuit, Knute Rockne, he says
  • Downey: Manti Te'o's story makes him want to laugh as much as cry

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.

(CNN) -- Oh, the stories we storytellers tell. Like the story of brave Manti Te'o and his doomed girlfriend. We love a good story. We love spinning a good yarn.

And we repeat and repeat and repeat them.

Babe Ruth was a big boy from an orphanage. Seabiscuit was a little horse that lost its first 17 races. Jim Thorpe was a Native American born in 1887 or '88 (as far as we know) with the name Wa-Tho-Huck.

Mike Downey
Mike Downey

It is their legend, their lore. The same way that George Washington cut down that tree or Abe Lincoln split those logs. The same way that Lana Turner was discovered at a drugstore called Schwab's or that Sylvester Stallone wrote the part of Rocky but wouldn't sell the script unless he could play it.

Documented achievement is what turns a man or woman into a public figure. But the story behind the story, well, that is also a telltale aspect of any human's fame. Yes, he did win this, she did win that, but come on, tell me a little more. How did they get this far? Where did they come from? Who influenced them? What else should we know?

Muhammad Ali wasn't a mere boxer; he was a man who changed his name and faith, a man who would fight anybody in a ring but refused to go to a war, a perfect physical specimen and a loudmouth who fell frail and all but mute from an affliction he couldn't beat.

Lots of fighters won fights. The stories are what have made Ali Ali.

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It separates names from the norm. He or she is not just a success but a remarkable story, an inspiration, a believe-it-or-not. He was a left-handed pitcher with no right hand who threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees. (Jim Abbott.) He ran in the Olympic Games on prosthetic legs. (Oscar Pistorius.) She sprinted to an Olympic gold even though they once nearly amputated her feet. (Gail Devers.) You can't make up stories like those.

Joe DiMaggio was a ballplayer. We know that Joe played ball better than most. But we also know Joe was married to Marilyn Monroe. We cannot tell you a lot about Willie Mays or Stan Musial except how they played ball. Both played it as well as Joe did ... hey, maybe better. But in some cases, the stories of certain greats are as unforgettable as their deeds.

So, we tell their tales. The subjects often furnish the details. We rely on honesty for accuracy. A story that has been reported is a story that ends up repeated because it must be true. We lazily assume facts not in evidence. Or we lean on: "Who would make up such a thing?"

Which brings us to Manti Te'o.

The grim fairy tale of The Linebacker Of Notre Dame is one we likely will tell for a while. We woke up Thursday morning and began reading a story that got curiouser and curiouser with every sentence. His girlfriend wasn't real? She wasn't in a car crash? She didn't die of leukemia? He never met her? She didn't even exist???

Irish blarney is a myth, is it not? Pots o' gold and St. Patrick and the snakes and how are things in Glocca Morra and all that? Aye, we aren't so gullible that we will swallow anything, would we, now?

So, OK. We tell and retell the true and false legends of Knute Rockne and winning one for the Gipper and all that, but we don't really mind. And maybe that October sky wasn't really as blue-grey as Grantland Rice told us it was when those Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rode to a great Notre Dame victory on the ol' gridiron.

"South Bend, it sounds almost like dancing!" gushed Katharine Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story," and what a funny story that was.

Manti Te'o's story, however .... not so funny.

He is a Notre Dame football star. Trust me, this alone is not a news event. Notre Dame turns out football stars the way Hostess turned out Twinkies. One after another after another.

He is also a Hawaiian kid with an apostrophe in his surname. Now that, that is not something you see on a Notre Dame football field every Saturday. A nice, noteworthy thing, something that separated Te'o from the pack, somewhat.

He is also a natural born leader. One who helped take Notre Dame to an undefeated season -- rare, in this day and age -- and to the national championship game.

In the vote for the Heisman Trophy, given to college football's top player of any given season, Te'o was the runner-up. That in itself is an honor, but for a linebacker to do such a thing, a defensive player, it is truly cool.

Ahhh, but there was more to the Manti Te'o story, as we watched that story unfold. He had this girlfriend, see. Lennay Kekua was her lovely name. And she died. A few months ago, she was in a car crash, we were told. And then doctors found she also had leukemia, we were told. Her death, as well as that of his grandmother, broke Te'o's heart. But on he played, gallantly, valiantly, fighting on for the Fighting Irish, remaining undefeated against adversity.

Until at some point it turned out to be a hoax. Which at some point Notre Dame's administrators discovered. Which at some point Te'o confirmed, although not publicly, not before that January 7 championship game against Alabama.

Brent Musburger made the Alabama quarterback's girlfriend an overnight sensation that night, gushing about her looks. Musburger did not make the Notre Dame linebacker's girlfriend a star that night. She wasn't there.

Turns out, she was never anywhere.

We love a good story and will continue to tell them. I, myself, once wrote of a Notre Dame football star, Chris Zorich, who played in the Orange Bowl one night, flew home to Chicago the next morning and found his mother dead inside their home. I made people cry with that story. I damn near cried myself while typing it.

Manti Te'o's story makes me want to laugh as much as cry. Mainly because I can barely comprehend it. All those stories being told out there on TV and in print about his "girlfriend" -- uh, he might have mentioned to someone that he'd never even met her.

How do the movies put it? "Based on a true story?"

Well, based on a story, anyhow. Everybody's is.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Downey.

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