Among the (many) confusing things about the ongoing saga of Manti Te'o's fake dead girlfriend, the similarities between the real life of Te'o-deceiver Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and the false narrative he created have especially muddled the facts. Two turning points in the faked narrative: "Lennay Kekua" was involved in a car accident in 2012 that left her "on the brink of death," and Kekua died of leukemia. Two turning points in Tuiasosopo's life, one of which we knew when we first published—that Tuiasosopo himself had been in a major car accident—and one which USA Today uncovered yesterday: Tuiasosopo's real life cousin, Jazmine Lutu, is indeed a "beautiful young woman" in her early 20s, currently battling leukemia. As in Kekua's story, she received a bone marrow transplant.
However, if the widely reported timelines are to be believed in this instance (a big if), the strange part is not that Tuiasosopo pulled a fact from his real life to embellish his story. That would be relatively banal, all things considered. The strange part is that a story Tuiasosopo made up appears to have come true for his cousin two months after the lie.
You'll recall this portion of the Lennay Kekua timeline, in which it's discovered—that is to say, conveyed to Te'o and his parents, who subsequently relayed the story to reporters—that Kekua has leukemia:
Some time in 2012: Kekua has a car accident somewhere in California that leaves her "on the brink of death" (Sports Illustrated). But when? Eight months before she died of cancer, in September, reports ESPN. "About the time Kekua and Manti became a couple," reports the South Bend Tribune. April 28, reports SI.
June 2012: As Kekua recovers from her injuries, doctors discover she has leukemia. She has a bone-marrow transplant. ("That was just in June," Brian Te'o told the South Bend Tribune in October of 2012. "I remember Manti telling me later she was going to have a bone marrow transplant and, sure enough, that's exactly what happened. From all I knew, she was doing really, really well.")
Kekua was diagnosed in June, given a bone-marrow transplant, and dead by September; in the meantime, Te'o talked to her nightly over the phone—Sports Illustrated relayed the now-infamous anecdote about their telephone correspondence: "When he woke up in the morning his phone would show an eight-hour call, and he would hear Lennay breathing on the other end of the line." USA Today reports that Tuiasospo's cousin might have been the inspiration for those developments in Kekua's life—had she not been diagnosed with leukemia and given a bone-marrow transplant two months after Kekua:
She is a beautiful young woman, in her early 20s, fighting leukemia. Unlike Lennay Kekua, she is real.
Jazmine Lutu smiles back from the Facebook page of her uncle [Ronaiah's father], Titus Tuiasosopo. It is her cousin, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who several media reports say orchestrated the hoax that led former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o to believe Kekua had died of the disease when she never even existed.
Reached on Friday, Lutu confirmed to USA TODAY Sports that she continues to battle cancer but declined to comment further about her family.
According to Titus Tuiasosopo's Facebook page, Lutu was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in August. She was set to receive a bone marrow transplant.
There are (at least) two options here: First, that the timeline of events reported during the college football season, from the facts offered by the Te'o family, was even more woefully inaccurate than it appeared at first glance. Second, that the fictions Tuiasosopo dreamed up to give dimension to the Kekua character were substantiated in real life in the form of his cousin, who came down with the same illness and required the same treatment two months after he first imagined it.
That summer of eight-hour phone conversations always seemed like an odd detail. Now, it seems possible that Tuiasosopo actually told Te'o of "Kekua's" leukemia diagnosis in August rather than June, and that the order of events had been misreported. Of course, that assumes that the most logical answer is also the accurate answer, and if Te'o's saga has taught us nothing else, it's taught us never to assume.